Cassel 26th-27th May 1940

Sunday 26th May 1940

Ready for Battle 

By the 26th May 1940, 367 Battery’s guns were ready, positioned at Chateau Masson (Regimental HQ), on the Mont St Recollets and at various sites around the perimeter of Cassel to face the expected German advance from the South-West.

Monday 27th May 1940

Operation Dynamo begins at Dunkirk

On the 27th May, British cross-channel ferries began the evacuation of the first B.E.F. troops from Dunkirk harbour.  The Luftwaffe started intense bombing raids of Dunkirk, however under fire 7,669 B.E.F troops were successfully evacuated.

German Perspective, 27th May 1940

The German intention was to close their Western ‘pincer’ spearheaded by elite Panzer troops and SS divisions across the main Dunkirk road at Cassel to join the less mechanised regular German forces who were threatening the Belgian approaches to Dunkirk at the town of Poperinghe.  This would have the effect of sealing off all the roads into Dunkirk through Belgium and France, thereby trapping the majority of the BEF before it could reach the beaches at Dunkirk.

German positions on 27th May 1940. From ‘Dunkirk -German Operations in France 1940‘ by Hans-Adolf Jacobsen

 

Belgian surrender – 27th May

There had been numerous developments across the entire Flanders battlefield.  Also on 27th May, the B.E.F’s situation deteriorated dramatically after the Belgian King Leopold III had announced his intention to surrender to German forces and as a result of the Belgian collapse, the British escape corridor to the North-east had suddenly became extremely vulnerable.

Massacre at Vinkt

King Leopold’s announcement did not prevent a massacre of between 86-140 Belgian civilians that took place at the town Vinkt, near Ghent at the hands of regular German Army troops.

Massacre at Le Paradis Farm

Also on this day, about 20 miles to the South of Cassel, at Le Paradis farm near Bethune, 97 men of the 2nd Norfolk Regiment suffered a massacre at the hands of SS troops.

Meeting at the Hotel du Sauvage, 27th May

In Cassel itself, early in the day and somewhat unwisely given the proximity to the front line, the British and French High Command held a high level meeting at the Hotel du Sauvage.  Lieutenant General Sir Ronald Adam represented the BEF and Général Bertrand Fagalade the French.

 

Hotel du Sauvage- Where Lord Gort’s plans for Operation Dynamo revealed to the French on 27th May 1940Hotel du Sauvage – Where Lord Gort’s plans for Operation Dynamo were revealed to the French High Command on 27th May 1940

At the meeting the British first informed the French, in coded terms, of their intention to evacuate the entire B.E.F.  However, the meeting had to be terminated after less than an hour due to shellfire and the commanders had a lucky escape.

Panzers attack Cassel

After heavy bombing from the air and continuous mortar fire throughout the morning, a major assault then began on the town from the South and South-east.  German tanks of the Sixth Panzer Division broke into the defences in a number of areas on the more gently sloping ground approaching Cassel but were eventually driven off.  There were heavy casualties, with D Company of the Oxford and Bucks reduced to less than 50 men.

Cassel- looking south

Cassel- looking South from the summit in the direction of the main Panzer division assaults

 

 

Cassel- South-Western approach, which has a gentler slope onto the Flanders plain. It was attacked by Panzer divisions and defended by the Gloucester Regiment.

 

The ‘Picket’ villages: Zuytpeene, Bavinchove and Hondeghem

Sketch map showing some of the locations of the conflict at Cassel

During the fighting on 27th May, the outlying village of Zuytpeene was surrounded and eventually surrendered and similarly the railway station at Bavinchove was captured after an heroic defence had taken place in both villages.

The Battle at Bavinchove (Cassel Station) 27th May 1940

The first company of the 11th Panzer regiment was assigned to the von Esebeck tactical group.  German Panzer officer Jurgens described the attack as follows:

“…Ltn. Bode, of the motorized company and the 1./11 are at the head of the march.  We are progressing slowly, feeling the ground.  In front of Bavinchove we are attacked from the heights of Cassel. In the locality, a railway line crosses the road, which is our axis of progression towards Cassel. Two locomotives had been placed there to block our path. I have two Panzer IVs placed at the exit of the locality to ensure our safety. Grenadiers voltigeurs are posted near the houses. The tanks of the 1./11 are in front of the locality ready to intervene. 

Colonel von Esebeck asks me to attack, I’m about to do it as soon as the locomotives are moved. Suddenly, everything cracks around us, everyone takes shelter.  Panzer IV’s open fire.  Two English caterpillars are destroyed. 

The commander of the motorised company, Lt Col von Seckendorff arrives at my position. In front of us, we have Englishmen who defend themselves fiercely.  English caterpillars descend on the road to Cassel. The first is destroyed by a Panzer IV, the others turn around.  During the night, Lt Col von Seckendorff ensures security with infantry. The tanks are resting.

We are preparing the attack on Cassel for May 28th’….

 

 

The railway station that serves Cassel in the village of Bavinchove.  The images show the railway crossing in 1940 and 2019.  British Engineers had positioned railway locomotives on the crossing to obstruct the D933 road.  

 

The Battle at Zuytpeene

‘A’ Company, 2nd Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment were sent to defend Zuytpeene. In the churchyard there are three Commonwealth War graves with an unusually large date range of death.  The three bodies of Privates King, Sims and Tilling were said to have been found dead in the church tower, which was being used as observation platform. The Germans realised this practice and church towers were usually the first thing to be shot at by approaching German artillery.

 

ZuytpeeneThe ‘picket’ village of Zuytpeene. The church and Commonwealth War Graves in 2019.

 

 

Sketch map of the Attack on Zuytpeene, with thanks to David Hineson

 

The Battles at Hondeghem and Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel

The village of Hondeghem is about 4 miles to the South of Cassel and its heroic defence on 27th May 1940 has become one of the legends of World War Two.  ‘K’ Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, equipped with the same 18-pounder guns as 140th Regiment, was ordered to defend the village with approximately 75 personnel of a searchlight battery under the command of Major Ramsden-Hoare.

At 07.00 hrs on 27th May 1940, German tanks and infantry attacked the village in considerable strength, including air support. The RHA was vastly outgunned and outnumbered.  The first onslaught caused two guns and detachments to be knocked out together with at least 5 Bren gun crews.  The remaining personnel  defended half the village until 1600 hrs when ammunition began to run out and the village was almost entirely surrounded.

Iconic painting of the RHA in action at Hondeghem

The 18-pounder guns had to be man-handled throughout the day under a hail of machine-gun fire with the purpose of firing directly point-blank onto enemy positions. Throughout the entire day all shooting was at very short range over ‘open sights‘.

Three enemy armoured vehicles and at least 2 machine-guns were completely destroyed. One machine-gun was just about to sweep the village square from the cookhouse doorway, when an 18-pounder scored a direct hit at approximately 60 yards range.  On another occasion an 18-pounder blew up the ammunition dump of a trench gun and silenced it for over three hours.

Hondeghem Church – the focus of intense fighting on 27th May 1940, taken from Rue de la K Hondeghem Battery, 2020

Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel

The Germans continued to shell Hondeghem village until the RHA was ordered to return to Cassel.  The two surviving guns, towed by Quads and with other troop vehicles, made their way with the wounded along the country lane to the adjacent village of Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel.

On arrival at the village the main road running through the village was found to be in held by the enemy equipped with medium tanks.  Orders were hastily given and the British troops took up positions by the church, where they were joined by a group of some twenty men from the Royal Army Service Corps armed with rifles and Bren guns.

Bayonet Charge

The troop commander decided that the best way to dislodge the Germans to their front was by an improvised bayonet charge.  Two parties were formed, one advancing around each side of the churchyard.  In the face of this onslaught, the Germans dropped their weapons and ran away.  The fight at Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel lasted around two and half hours; the men had shown immense bravery and coolness under fire, having been in combat almost continuously since 07.00 hrs.

Commonwealth War Cemetery, Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel, 2019

 

Chateau Masson, 140 Regiment HQ under attack

In the attack of 27th May, the Chateau Masson HQ, which was on lower ground in the col between Mont des Recollets and Cassel, suddenly became part of the front line (‘FDL’) and a gun was placed on the road to act as an anti-tank defence.

140 Regiment 18-pounder covering D916/D933 junction into Cassel

The 140th Regiment was in action here and helped to knock out five tanks, while HQ personnel also helped to fight off German infantry in the first of the assaults on Cassel.  During the engagement German infantry succeeded in reaching the Chateau and seized the Regiment’s radio equipment before being fought back.

 

Chateau Masson, named after the owner of Mt des Recollets (which was previously used as a commercial sand quarry)

View from the frontage of Chateau Masson looking towards the D916 Road, this area became part of the front line and was eventually over-run by advancing German troops. 367 Battery claimed five panzer tanks destroyed during this engagement. 

‘F’ Troop, 367 Battery’s Last Stand

At around midday ‘F’ troop of the 140th Regiment, led by Captain Ronald Baxter with Lieutenant Jack May, Lieutenant Charles Bennett, Sergeant Harold Swindle and Bombardier Arthur Ross, were engaged in a short-range duel with German Panzer tanks that were attempting to advance Northwards along the line of the D916 road in the gap between Cassel and Mont des Recollets.

The engagement resulted in Sergeants Goodrum and Swindle’s deaths, and both Lieutenant May and Lieutenant Bennett were seriously injured.  Gunner Ernie Pilbeam later recounted that it was a premature explosion of a shell that had killed Goodrum and Swindle.  It had a faulty fuse and detonated immediately it left the gun muzzle.

Lt. Jack May was to escape at Dunkirk but died on 21st June 1940 of these, and subsequent, injuries.  Lt. Charles Bennett was captured on 30th May and spent the remainder of the war as a POW.  Sergeant Harry Swindle has an unknown grave and is commemorated at the Dunkirk Memorial.  Bombardier Arthur Ross was injured by rifle fire during the breakout on 30th May and died in captivity on 3rd June 1940.

Part of F troop, 367 Battery

 

The 140th Regiment’s War Diary comments that the Northern Troop, on the other side of the Mont des Recollets and commanded by Lt Col Odling, was unable to assist in the defence of the HQ and ‘F’ troop’s gun battery position.  Their guns were unable to elevate their fire sufficiently over the rising ground between the two positions.

 

Brigadier Somerset’s Perspective

Brigadier Somerset describes the multiple German attacks of 27th May in his War Diary.  He refers to the Panzer attack on 140th Regiment’s HQ and states: ‘Heavy tanks came up under what cover they could get and opened fires with all weapons. They appeared to be trying to get a footing ion the col between Cassel and Mt. de Recollets. The fire was very accurate and continuous and their tanks were very daring- as a result many were knocked out. They imagined that we should bolt if they were persistent enough as had happened elsewhere.’

 

Somerset’s War Diary describing the events of 27th May 1940

 

140th Regiment relocates into Cassel

Later in the day, Chateau Masson was eventually over-run and the HQ staff and southernmost gun troops had to relocate to join Brigadier Somerset’s position into the higher ground of the town centre.

At the same time, the other Regiments holding positions on the Mont Des Recollets, and survivors from the battles at the ‘picket’ villages (with the exception of Lt. Cresswell at the Le Pequel bunker in Hardifort) were also forced to consolidate their positions into the town of Cassel itself.

Eecke

Enemy attacks also dispersed the Regiments supply depot and transport based at the village of Eecke (about 5 miles to the East of Cassel) and by the morning of 28th May the Regiment had re-sited its guns and ammunition into the garrison of Cassel.

 

RAMC Field Ambulance in Cassel

143rd Field Ambulance arrived in Cassel on 25th May.  Corporal Stanley Watson, age 46 years, of 143rd F.A. wrote about his experience, after his successful escape at Dunkirk. He described being under mortar, and possibly air attack, at a RAMC Dressing Station in Cassel.

Corporal Watson wrote: “I am one of six left. I was blown out of my dressing room, which was in a barn, at a place called ‘Cassel’ which was blown to dust, there [some] got badly wounded and I got away with a few splinters which are now finished”

Corporal Stanley Watson, RAMC. July 1941. With thanks to Angus Watson

143 Field Ambulance produced an original sketch map, and chronology, of their  advance into Belgium on 12th May 1940, the route taken to Cassel via Steenvoorde and the 143 F.A’s escape at Dunkirk.

 Sketch map of 143 Field Ambulance’s campaign 12th- 31st May 1940 including their route to Cassel on 25th May. With thanks to Angus Watson  

Among the casualties treated by 143 Field Ambulance were a transport of 9th Sherwood Foresters whose bus had stopped in the Grand Place on 27th May and received a direct hit from a Stuka dive bomber.

Three Field Ambulance units of the 44th (Home Counties) Division were also positioned near to Cassel at the village of Eecke; their Field Ambulance HQ was in a Monastery in the nearby Mont Des Cats.

These three units, including Corporal Stanley Waldron of the 133 FA, were dispersed during the battles at Cassel and the majority of personnel of 131 &133 FA were captured by the Germans.

Corporal Waldron was to spend the years 1940-43 in Stalag VIIIB.  In 1943 Waldron was repatriated to provide medical support for other prisoners.

Corporals from 133 Field Ambulance. Stanley Waldron is on the left. With thanks to Malcolm Waldron 

 

140th Field Regiment War Diary, 27th May 1940

Major Christopherson’s War Diary, as ever understated, describes the 27th May as ‘a difficult and traumatic day’.

He describes how, during the course of that day, both his gun battery positions at Mont Des Recollets and the Regiments supply depot at Eecke had been overrun by German tanks.

‘In the morning the enemy attacked all along the front and broke through South of the Regimental positions. About 09.00 I personally was proceeding to EECKE where our wagon lines were situated but had only gone 200 yards when I was turned back with the information that enemy tanks were further down the road. On our front line the 2nd Glosters and 4th Ox Bucks repulsed the morning attack. Owing to a breakdown in communications and doubt as to where our troops were, we missed some fine targets although we did do a fair amount of shooting. Pressure was kept up all day by the enemy and at one time the enemy reached within 50 yards of the kind of wall that surrounds CASSEL.

At 14.00 hrs. I found Regimental H.Q. was in the F.D.L. [front line] and I had to form a post on the main CAESTRE road just outside the Regimental H.Q. with one 18-pounder covering the road [providing] Anti-tank defence and six Anti-tank rifles and Lewis Guns covering nearly 180°.

About 18.00 hrs. the Westernmost Troop and Boyes Rifles between them knocked out five tanks. The enemy entered the Officers’ Mess and took away the wireless, but although this was only 100 yards to the flank of the guns they did not attack.

Other parties from Regimental H.Q. formed a defensive line and helped the Battery to drive off an enemy Infantry attack.

During this day the Troop North of the wood [Mont des Recollets] could not fire on the attack as CASSEL Hill intervened and there was no enemy attack from the North-West, so the Troop Commander went to assist the other two Troop Commanders.

At 21.00 hrs. Regimental H.Q. and the two Troops South of the wood [Mont des Recollets] moved into CASSEL itself as the Infantry could no longer provide any protection for the guns, and Anti-Tank positions were taken up in CASSEL for all round defence.

During the morning three enemy Tanks reached the wagon line (support area) at EECKE and dispersed Regimental H.Q. transport.’