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.
German troops apply a shell dressing to a badly wounded British soldier near Cassel
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 Lt Rowland’s Diary Account
Thursday 30th May. ‘Apparently original route impossible. ERY & Ox & Bucks LI went off to left but never returned. Lay in ditches under fire for three hours. Eventually moved towards DROOGLAND where balloon went up. Cut off from others by Tks [tanks]. Got away with Adj Forbes & about 10 ORs [Ordinary Ranks], mostly wounded. Under fire whole way. Called [?into] farm, free until 11.30 when taken prisoner with rest. Wounded treated very well by Germans’.
‘Amazed to find DROOGLAND completely occupied by Germans. Were treated quite well but no food all day. Thought at first was going to be shot . Marched to Watou where we joined Adj, Transport in evening to STEENVORDE where we spent night in Estaminet on floor. All windows by shell fire. Town badly damaged. Very bad night. Not possible to wash or shave.’
East Riding Yeomanry
The E.R.Y. War Diary records: ‘Chaos and disorder were everywhere but out of that disorder the cheerfulness and discipline of the British soldier was amazing….‘
War Diary excerpt and accompanying Sketch map from East Riding Yeomanry’s War Diary. It describes routes taken by Squadrons A, B, C and RHQ staff of the E.R.Y. towards Watou. The route marked ‘2 i/c‘ also corresponds to Major Cartland’s and 140 Rgt’s column heading towards Watou.
The last sentence of this account reads:
‘The final tribute must go to the Regiment and the gallant defenders of Cassel who refused to surrender until their task was accomplished’
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‘.
Fane 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.
As the Breakout columns approached the French border village of Winnezeele, the early morning mist began to lift and the most significant German opposition was encountered. Many members of 140th Regiment were captured (or possibly killed) in this area, including Captain Cecil Hood, Lt Budd and 2nd Lt Rowland.
Captain C. Lorne MacDougall is recorded as having left Cassel with Captain Hood in Hood’s diary, but appears to have successfully evaded capture until late July 1940 (see below).
Winnezeele Church and Commonwealth War Cemetery. There are several unknown Artillerymen buried here, almost certainly killed in the area during the breakout
At the Winnezeele Commonwealth War Cemetery there are over fifty 1939-45 war casualties commemorated, many coinciding with the date of the Breakout and of these over half are unidentified, an indication of the furious fighting in the Dunkirk rearguard.
Captain Cecil Hood’s Diary
Captain Hood’s diary 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.
30th May: ‘Held up by machine gun fire at 5.30 am. Shared bully with Lorne [Capt MacDougall], captured at 10 am after being chased by tanks and machine gun fire. Was there with Rowley [2nd Lt M Rowland], met Blossom [Lt Budd] in Winnezeale [sic], was allowed to go back quarter-mile to farm to fetch pack I had thrown away.
To Watou by truck. 5.30 pm to Steenyoord [sic]. 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 years old. Spent night in half ruined estaminet.
31st May: Assembled in Watou town square. Marched to Hazebrouke.
1st June: Taken to Arras by truck 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.
4th June: marched to Rochefort- 6 hrs with no stop.
5th June: kept in a field with 1000’s of other POW’s.
6th June: marched to Champion de Barriere, slept in stables.
7th June: marched to Bastogne.’
Nine Elms Cemetery, Poperinghe
Nine Elms Commonwealth War Cemetery near Poperinghe is about 4 miles to the East of Watou and represents the probable Easterly limit of the retreat from Cassel.
The Cross of Remembrance, Nine Elms Commonwealth War Cemetery. The Mont des Cats (where 143 Field Ambulance were based) is just visible (tall communication mast) to the South of the Cemetery.
Gunner Frederick Hart, 367 Battery
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 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, 367 Battery
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, F Troop 367 Battery
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, 367 Battery
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, F troop 367 Battery
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.
Captain Coll Lorne MacDougall, D Troop, 367 Battery
Captain MacDougall was the Officer commanding ‘D’ Troop, 367 Battery, and would have been my father, Eric West’s, senior Officer at Cassel. Captain MacDougall took part in the breakout and it appears that he managed to evade immediate capture. He eventually became a POW two months later at Forges-les Eaux, Normandy on 24th July 1940. This town is about 100 miles to the South-west of Cassel.
Thus MacDougall had lived off the land for nearly two months while he evaded capture, possibly with the help of French resistance.
Forges-les -Eaux, Normandie is about 110 miles South West of Cassel
An unknown number of British soldiers in the Dunkirk rearguard were similarly able to evade capture, some for the entire duration of the war, by assimilating themselves into French or Belgian communities, and some were never to return home. It is known that of the total number of BEF soldiers serving in France in 1939-40, up to 2,000 men are unaccounted for.
After the war, Captain MacDougall was mentioned in dispatches after recommendation by the British Secret service, MI9. The award was proposed for his communication from captivity with the War office in London, cryptically described as ‘by secret means’.
Lance Bombardier Eric West, D Troop, 367 Battery
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. Battery Sgt. Major. F. Goddard was attached to ‘D’ Troop of 367 Battery, which suggests that my father was captured alongside the men of his Gun Troop.
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.
Page 2 of my father’s Liberation Questionnaire- ‘Sgt Major Goddard [I presume this is BSM F. Goddard, D Troop 367 Battery] was interrogated on our behalf’
After capture it appears my father was marched, with Gunner Eric Johnson, to Stalag VIB in North-western Germany.
Captain Tony Cartland, Lincolnshire Regiment
Nearby to Watou, Major Ronald Cartland’s brother, Captain J.A.H. (Tony) Cartland was also serving as a professional soldier 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’.