The Breakout (part 1 of 2)

The Breakout from Cassel, Wednesday 29th – Thursday 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, equipment and what rations could be carried.

1940 Maps of Cassel (bottom left) showing the road from Mont des Recollets to Winneezele.  Most of the  Breakout columns followed this road until Drogland and then headed North towards the wooded area (top right) which is the Bois St Acair. With thanks to Barry Ross

East Riding 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 Riding 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.

Sketch map from East Riding Yeomanry’s War Diary showing the intended escape route from Cassel toward the Dunkirk beaches 

Appendix ‘A’ to the EYR War Diary describing the Regiment’s contribution to the Breakout

Brigadier the Hon Nigel Somerset

The Commanding Officer of 145 Brigade, Brigadier Somerset was captured near Watou on 30th May.  He was in the Breakout column with his Brigade staff and had managed to by-pass Winnezeele where he noted his ‘force was strung out across country in pitch dark’.

Somerset’s War Diary describing his involvement in the Breakout

‘Owing to the late start and the few hours of darkness, I realised that in order to reach the DUNKIRK perimeter before daylight we should have to move quickly, as it was obvious very few could escape after it got light,  and in any case the rear half of the column would have to fight for it if the whole force didn’t.
The night was pitch dark and once on the move all control except in one’s immediate vicinity was virtually nil. The early part of the march was very slow being across country which was intercepted by thick hedges over which it had not been possible to make any previous recces. One permanently had the impression that we were walking into an ambush and so all lights, talking and any noise was prohibited.
During the early part of the march there was considerable shell-fire visible in the DUNKIRK area and by the location of the firing flashes and the bursts. I felt convinced that the ring was closed and that only a miracle could get us through. I felt that had I gone off on my own or with a small party one could probably make it, but I could not quite make up my mind whether or not it was my duty to stay with the Brigade Gip, and get or help get as many as possible through the Germans. Actually one could exercise very little personal influence I tried to think that would give me licence to break off.
At about 2230 we were moving along a track some 1000x to NE of WINNIZEELE as far as could be judged. Many of the buildings in the village were burning fiercely and the surrounding country was lit up by the flames. At about the same time tanks could be heard moving along the road through the village. At first here they might be our own light tanks, but they sounded heavier and as though they were on patrol. After clearing the village…….’

Under fire, his party reached the barbed wire entanglements at the Franco-Belgian border and from there intercepted the Watou-Hondschoote Road.  Here they encountered a stationary car with two men asleep inside. The startled men were German soldiers who immediately surrendered and warned the party that the area was completely occupied by enemy troops.

Somerset’s War Diary describing his capture of two German soldiers

‘My only idea now was to try and find an open route to what I thought would be the DUNKIRK bridgehead, and if possible arrange for guides to return and direct as many of the Bde HQ who were coming on. For the next couple of hours we made unexpected and excellent progress across country avoiding roads, tracks, houses or even enclosures as much as possible. I began to get quite optimistic and thought perhaps we had broken through the inf cordon near WATOU and that this was all needed. Then I remembered the artillery fire earlier in the previous evening and didn’t feel quite so optimistic.
In one or two of these houses we saw lights and heard voices and these were obviously Germans so we passed them as quietly as we could with drawn and ready revolvers. On another occasion we heard track vehicles on the road, and we gave them a wide berth. Presently we struck a wide canal, full of water, and for a few moments we thought it was the YSER CANAL, but it was only a large ditch and quite shallow and we waded across it without difficulty. About this time it was beginning to show signs of getting light and I knew that if we encountered the enemy we should not be able to put up much of a show once they could see what we consisted of
We next crossed a main road which we took to be the road WATOU-HONDERSHOOT and our hopes began to rise higher again, especially as we heard no firing or signs of activity anywhere. The next thing we came upon was a motor car and beside it were some figures sleeping on the ground. At first, thought they might be Belgians, or French troops, but we approached them with our revolvers at the ready and found they were German soldiers asleep in their flea-bags. When they woke up and saw us they quickly held up their hands. We disarmed them and tried to question them as to the Germans positions. They were quite truculent and one who spoke English said we were completely surrounded and which ever way we went we were for it or words to that effect.
I realised we couldn’t leave them where they were, and that the only thing for it was to take them along with us. I hoped that the Germans were trying to bluff us, but their very confident bearing should have warned me, and we should have gone back. It was getting light however and I felt every minute was precious. I decided to continue on our original compass bearing – it had done us well so far and in any case it seemed as good as plan as any other…’

Somerset and his two prisoners continued to advance by compass bearing towards Dunkirk, but at this stage there was early morning light and they were soon challenged by German troops who opened fire with machine guns. Somerset dived into a ditch and his prisoner fell on top of him. At this point he realised that escape was impossible and asked his prisoner to shout out surrender. A German major in a highly agitated state threatened him with a drawn revolver alleging the British had been shooting German prisoners. Somerset calmly explained, with his pipe in his mouth, that the British would do no such thing, as evidenced by the two prisoners accompanying their party.

Somerset’s diary records his relief at seeing the countryside, in the dawn light, was ‘alive with German tanks, guns and machinery and that escape would have been impossible without an enormous force’.

‘It was now nearly light – more Germans were collecting and I saw no prospect of being able to move. The only person at hand other than the German POW was my IO who was cowering in a ditch some yards to my right. It appears the Staff-Captain was crawling away down the ditch to my right. Having decided escape was impossible told the German lying on me to call out and surrender, but it took some time before the sentry and his party who had now collected understood the situation and told us to come in while he covered us.
Shortly after this the rest of my party were forced to surrender and were brought in together with the wounded. I was then told to sit down by AFV which was in the corner of the hedge only about 5 yds from where I had come to originally in the light. In the meantime the local commander – a Major – arrived in a very excited state and rushed up to me with a drawn revolver accompanied by a man with a hand-grenade ready to be thrown. He was shouting ‘swinen-fleish’ and I discovered he was accusing me of shooting my German prisoners. Fortunately I had got my pipe in my mouth and tried to look as particularly unconcerned, or I feel sure he would have fired as he was quite out of control. I explained that British did not shoot prisoners and that I had no intention of doing so, whereupon after some more cursing he put up his revolver and departed shouting ‘you bloody fools’.
We were then marched off to the Regtl HQ which was in a farm some 500x away. I was somewhat relieved to see as light broke, that the whole countryside was alive with German troops with ATk guns at many places and numerous AFVs and I realised that to break that cordon would have required an enormous force with modem weapons. Unfortunately in the first salvo at us by the German sentry – five of my HQ were hit including my driver who subsequently lost a leg…’

Probable site of Somerset’s capture, 7 km south of Hondschoote

Major E.A. Milton

There is no written record of 367 Battery’s movements after Cassel apart from Major Christopherson’s account, having been injured at Cassel.  There is 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.

Major E.A. Milton

Edward Milton had been a schoolteacher pre-war at Enfield Grammar School. 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, alongside six other members of the 140th Regiment.

Major Milton’s grave at Longueness Souvenir Cemetery.

Gunner William Martin 

Gunner Martin was detained as a POW with Major Milton 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.

Gunner Martins DCM citation, with thanks to Barry Ross

Bombardier Arthur Ross

Arthur Ross had assembled with the men of F troop for the breakout in Cassel when he received a severe injury to the neck from a rifle bullet, possibly fired by a sniper.  He was unable to make further progress, was captured and transferred to the Field hospital at St Omer, then under German control.  He died from his injury on the 3rd June 1940.

Major Ronald Cartland’s Column- Ambush at Watou

A large group of 140th Regiment’s men were captured in a column led by Major Ronald Cartland MP and Lieutenant Hutton-Squire of the 53rd Worcester Yeomanry anti-tank Regiment after a surprise attack by German Panzers just outside Watou on the morning of 30th May.

Major Cartland was leading a mixed column of artillery and infantrymen, including men of his own Regiment and several men from the 140 Field Regiment,  cross country and had succeeded in getting to the east of German-held Watou when his column encountered three German tanks just to east of Watou.

As they had only small arms and rifles and their position in a roadside ditch was completely exposed as the morning mist lifted, Cartland advised his men to surrender but one of the tanks opened fire on the column with its machine gun. Major Cartland was killed, at the age of 33 years, along with Lt. Hutton-Squire and at least eight members of the 140 Field Regiment, including 2nd Lieutenant Graham Cook, Lance Bombardier James Hardy, Gunner Horace Nicholls, Gunner Sydney Vangrosky, Gunner Alfred Thorpe, Gunner William Davies, Gunner Edwin Stahan and Gunner John Duffield.  Private Oscar Adams of the Ox & Bucks light Infantry was also amongst the dead.

Lieutenant Derek Woodward was in the column and wrote an account from captivity on 4th January 1941 that is quoted in Barbara Cartland’s biography ‘My Brother Ronald.

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.’

The ambush casualties were buried in a temporary burial ground on the D17 road (Houtkerkestraat) about 200 yards north of Watou.  The burial ground was also used for many of the Breakout casualties from the surrounding area (see ‘Watou and the Temporary Burial Ground’).  In total approximately 35 British casualties were buried here.

In 1948, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission re-interred Major Cartland and the members of the 140 Regiment, and one unknown soldier, to the CWG Cemetery at Hotton, in the Luxembourg province of Belgium.  The majority of the other British soldiers were also re-interred to Hotton.

Lieutenant Hutton-Squire was re-interred to the nearby CWG Cemetery at Proven.

This ambush appears to have caused the largest number of 140 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 140 Regiment.

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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.  

Graves of Major Cartland MP, one unknown solder, and five members of 140th Field Regiment at Hotton. Gunner Vangrosky’s grave carries the Star of David. 

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

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. 

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

Lieutenant Robert David Hutton-Squire in 1940

Lieutenant Hutton-Squire’s grave at Proven Churchyard 

There are other accounts of this ambush, that occurred at about 08.30 on 30th May, including D. R Guttery’s account 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.’

Ambush site at Watou

Recent research by local historian Jan Daschot suggests that the ambush of Cartlands’ column may have taken place about 2 km to the East of Watou at the intersection between the roads to Watou, Proven, Abele and St Jan-ter-Biezen.

Using local Flemish wartime records, Jan Daschot has localised the site to the crossroads between the Douvieweg and Stoppleweg roads, shown on the satellite map below, with the column’s estimated track from Watou shown as an orange line and the ambush taking place at the red rectangle.

Satellite map showing revised site of ambush (red rectangle with white inner) and Major Cartland’s burial (red circle, white inner).

Intersection between roads to Watou, Proven, Abele and St Jan-ter-Biezen 

Looking southwards, the view as seen by Germans intercepting the approaching Cartland column

Presumed site of the ambush of Major Cartland’s column, with thanks to Jan Daschot

Bombardier Harry Munn, 53rd Worcester Yeomanry

It appears that Bombardier Harry Munn was in Major Cartland’s column in Watou at the time of the ambush.

Bombardier Harry Munn 

Harry Munn  included a description of the events in his wartime account:-

‘..On the evening of the 29th May orders were given for the destruction of our guns and vehicles and with heavy hearts we went to Major Cartland’s H.Q.  As we entered we were given cigarettes and a tin of corned beef by Lt. Freeker.  Major Cartland made a speech in which he explained our position and said the Brigade would leave Cassel on foot and attempt to reach our lines.  No mention was made that the evacuation was already taking place at Dunkirk.  He also said it was an “every man for himself” situation and any man who wished to make his own way was free to do so.  All elected to follow the Major and armed with rifles, Bren guns and Mills bombs we set off through the burning town of Cassel.  Leading the march and bringing up the rear were remnants of the Brigade’s two infantry regiments – The Glosters and the Ox and Bucks L.I., R.A. and R.E. personnel in the centre of the column.  During the night we encountered enemy machine-gun fire and George Prosser and “Tiny” James were wounded but fortunately not seriously.

‘..At dawn we found ourselves under heavy fire from infantry and tanks.  Very heavy casualties were inflicted on our battery and, to save further losses, Major Cartland gave the order to surrender.  At this point heavy firing was going on and Major Cartland was killed.  Lt. Hutton-Squire, Tommy Bunn, the Major’s driver, and myself were some distance from the rest of the battery.

‘..Lt Hutton-Squire said he wasn’t going to become a POW and shouted “Follow me Bombadier” then stormed out of the ditch we were in, firing a Bren gun at a nearby tank. He was killed by the answering burst of fire from the tank.  Tommy Bunn and I reached a ditch on the far side of the field and came under heavy fire from the same tank.  We knew we would not be taken prisoner by this tank crew and crawled along the ditch towards a gate into the next field.  We jumped from the ditch and ran through the gateway right into the middle of a German patrol who already had several of our Battery prisoner. “Halt!” shouted their N.C.O. and Tommy and I went into the bag’.

War Diary, 53rd Worcester Yeomanry Anti-Tank Regiment

The final entry in the Worcester Yeomanry War Diary sums up the contribution made by this Territorial anti-tank artillery Unit to the defence of the Dunkirk rearguard.

53rd Anti Tank Regt War Diary. ‘The Regiment alone accounted for about 100 enemy tanks of all sizes. And finally came the melancholy retreat to the Dunkirk beaches’