Cassel 28th May 1940

 

Tuesday 28th May 1940

The Battle of Cassel continues

Although there were no major infantry or tank assaults on Cassel on the morning of 28th May, there was heavy and continuous shelling.  German aircraft also dropped their iconic propaganda leaflets on the town (below) urging the defenders to surrender.  The civilians left in Cassel were predominantly sheltering in cellars; their position was becoming untenable as they had no access to fresh water or sanitation and so Brigadier Somerset had by now arranged for the majority to be escorted out of the town towards safety.

 

German Propaganda leaflet

The shelling was causing problems with communications and delivery of supplies.  The concussion effect of exploding shells was repeatedly extinguishing the portable petrol stoves used for catering- these had to be replaced with improvised wood fires in cellars of abandoned town houses.

Cabinet Crisis 28th May 1940

Winston Churchill, by then 18 days into his new role as Prime Minster, addressed the House of Commons at mid-day and said:

‘..The House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies’.

At 6.15 pm that day, 28th May 1940, Churchill addressed the outer Cabinet of his National Unity Government and gained their support against Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, and others, within the inner (War) Cabinet who, for the last few days, had been pressing for a negotiated peace with Hitler.

He stated that ‘..Britain should not get better terms from Germany now than if she fought it out. Germany’s terms would include a demand for the fleet and Great Britain would become a puppet state.’ To applause and table thumping, Churchill went on to his famous and dramatic conclusion by saying ‘..if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground’

 

Somerset’s Perspective

Brigadiers Somerset’s War Diary records another difficulty day in which German troops could be seen traversing the plain on either side of Cassel and occupying the nearby villages of Steenvorde and St. Sylvestre.

He also documents the CRA’s (Commander Royal Artillery) request to move the 18-pounder guns into Cassel because of the continued threat from AFVs (armoured fighting vehicles)- a request he agreed to with reluctance.

 

Le Pequel Bunker, Hardifort

Lt Cresswell’s War Diary recalls the furious and sustained attacks to the North of Cassel during 28-29th May.

Lt Cresswell’s account of his defence of Hardifort Bunker 27-28th May 1940

On the 28th May Cresswell observed German tanks and vehicles moving to the East of Cassel, leading him to speculate whether Cassel had been over-run.  He goes on to describe May 29th as ‘one of the worst days we had experienced in the blockhouse’.

Sherwood Foresters Tragedy

During the morning of 28th May, a battalion of Sherwood Forester troops passed through the town en-route to Dunkirk.  Unfortunately the lorries carrying the troops halted in the Grand Place, despite the ongoing shelling and air attacks.  Two lorries of the convoy were hit by an air attack, resulting in considerable loss of life and injury, adding to the mayhem and chaos in the town centre. Some accounts describe these troops as Green Howards, indicating the confusion reigning in the town at the time. Cassel Cemetery contains the remains of Sherwood Forester Private’s Ford, Hawksworth, Walker and Marriott.

Massacre at Wormhout

A few miles to the North of Cassel, the British garrison at Wormhout was overrun and another massacre took place, at the hands of SS troops, resulting in the death of 90 men, mainly of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

Operation Dynamo underway

At Dunkirk, another 17,804 B.E.F. troops were evacuated on the second day of Operation Dynamo.

140th Regiment’s Commanding Officer wounded in action

By now the main German force had crossed the main road from Dunkirk to Cassel and 367 Battery’s northernmost troop was in action for a large part of the day defending the town.  The troop was positioned near to the modern Jardin des Mt Recollets.

The Regiment’s Commanding Officer, Lieut. Colonel C.J. Odling, was wounded here at about midnight 27th/28th May and thereafter Major Christopherson was put in command.  Lt-Col Odling  was incapacitated by his injury and unable to participate in the garrison’s breakout on 29th May.  He was subsequently captured in Cassel.

5th Royal Horse Artillery

5th Royal Horse Artillery, which had a Troop stationed at Cassel, were moved out of the town to join Brigadier Norman’s force and so Major Christopherson became the CRA (Commander, Royal Artillery) to Brigadier Somerset at HQ.

‘D’ Troop, 367 Battery in action

‘D’ Troop were positioned in the South-east of the Mont des Recollets and I believe my father L/Bombardier Eric West would have been in this Troop.  They had been joined by one gun from the 5th Royal Horse Artillery, with their guns directing fire back-to-back in both a Northerly and Southerly direction.

Post-war, Sgt. Fred Rich of ‘D’ Troop wrote to Lt. Somerwill in 1982 and listed the Sergeants in the Troop as: Sgt F. Bishop; Lance Sgt. G. Gyles; Sgt. F. Rich; Sgt. L.Mears and Battery Sgt. Major F. Goddard.  (Later in the war, Sgt. Mears was to become the ‘Man of Confidence’ in my father’s POW work camp at Bethuen [see ‘Captivity & the Long March‘] and in his Liberation Questionnaire my father states he was captured alongside Sergeant Major Goddard on 31st May 1940).

 

Extract from Sgt Fred Rich’s letter to Lt Somerwill, dated 1982

In another letter, dated 1983, Sgt Rich described the ‘friendly fire‘ incident in which one of the officers, 2nd Lt. Waterman was killed.  He then went on to describe the re-positioning of ‘D’ Troop into Cassel itself, as the position on Mont des Recollects had become untenable. There, a shelling or mortar incident occurred in which he was wounded and Bombardier Beth was killed.  He described being captured at the dressing station in Cassel on 30th May.

Extract from Sgt Rich’s letter dated 1983 ,describing the death of 2nd Lt. Waterman and Bombardier Beth.

Panzers attack again

From 08:00 on the 28th May German infantry could be seen transported in troop carriers to the west of Cassel.  Low-level air attack preceded a tank attack at 10:00.

53rd Worcester Yeomanry Regiment Anti Tank Artillery

Troops A, B and C of Major Ronald Cartland’s 209 Battery, 53rd Worcester Regiment anti-tank artillery were posted to Cassel during 23rd-28th May.  They were equipped with the 2-pounder anti tank gun, which unlike the Boyes rifle, proved a highly successful anti-tank weapon in 1940 and probably accounted for over 100 German tank losses in this area.

One of these 2-pounder guns, positioned on the South East of Cassel, destroyed a panzer tank at ‘my campaign’ (see Cassel Aftermath images).

 

2-pounder anti-tank gun, circa 1940 

209 Battery’s War Diary showing chronology of the Battery’s movements during April-May 1940

‘C’ Troop of the 53rd Worcesters under Lieut. Bob Hutton-Squire, quickly destroyed three tanks.  By changing gun positions constantly to alternative sites, his Troop avoided casualties and managed to destroy further tanks.  Sadly, Lt Hutton-Squire was killed two days later, at the age of 31 years, during the breakout and while resisting capture.  Lt. Hutton-Squire is buried at Proven Churchyard, about 3 miles North-east of Watou.

 

German Panzer 35t tanks approaching Cassel from the West – with thanks to Dave Hineson

Bombardier Harry Munn, 53rd Worcester Yeomanry Anti-Tank Artillery

Bombardier Harry Munn served in ‘C’ Troop of 209 Battery under the command of Major Cartland.   He was captured during the Breakout, survived the war and wrote an account of his experience on his return from captivity.

Bmbr Harry Munn (seated)

This is an excerpt from Munn’s account, covering the period at Cassel, 26th-29th May 1940:

‘..Major Cartland was in charge of the anti-tank defences of Cassel and 11 guns were dug in around the town.  The rest of the Regiment were formed into a flying column under the command of Col. Medley and sent to deal with the ‘few tanks’ that had broken through our lines. On Sunday 26th May Lt. Hutton-Squire moved us up to a new position near the main road to Calais.

‘..As we moved in, we came under heavy mortar fire from the Germans on the plain below.  We quickly put our gun into the shallow gun pit used by the 2-pounder which necessitated removing both wheels and took cover in two slit trenches.  Our trench held the gun crew (Frank Barber, Bill Vaux and me).  The second trench contained the Bren gunner (H. James) and the Boyes rifle manned by W. Anthony.  Driver Harry Clark had taken the vehicle some 100 yds from the position, from where he could recover the gun and crew on my recall signal.

‘..Still under heavy mortar fire we stood looking out over the plain below and we could see 24 tanks in line abreast coming towards our lines.  They were too far away to be identified.  Frank said “Do you think they are ours?” and I replied “I think it very bloody doubtful“.  As the tanks got nearer, we could clearly see the Swastika flags on the front of each tank.  Lt. Hutton-Squire came to the position with Major Cartland saying “Tanks in your area Bombadier“.  I replied, “I see them sir” and from then on, they didn’t interfere with our handling of the situation.

‘..Meanwhile the German tanks had reached a small wood at the base of the ridge and halted there, out of sight of our position.  Directly below us was a gap in the wood where we expected the attack to come from and sure enough three tanks came through the gap about 600 yds away.  One was a large tank armed with a gun and twin machine guns and two were smaller armed with machine guns and mortars.  I gave the order “Take post” and we manned the gun.  I gave the orders using the open sights on the gun which enabled the No 3 layer, Frank Barber, to pick up and follow the tank with his telescopic sight.  The loader No 2, Bill Vaux, had loaded the gun and the next order was “Fire!.  The 2-pound shell had a tracer base that enabled you to see its trajectory.   Our first shot went straight and true for the target, but at almost the point of impact the tank dipped into a small trough in the ground and the shell passed in front of the turret.  From our point of view this could not have been worse.  The tracer enabled the German tank commander to know he was under attack and from what direction.  His gun turret turned in our direction and opened fire, missing us by some fifty yards. Our next shot hit the tank just below the turret and failed to penetrate the armour but went up into the air like a rocket.  We continued our duel with the tank.  We fired, they moved, halted and fired back.  After some 15 shells had been fired, Bill Vaux, who could not see what was going on but knew from the lack of movement of the gun that we were still engaging the original target enquired “When are you going to hit the bloody thing?“.  By now the tank was less than 100 yds from our position and we still could not penetrate its armour.  The only thing I could think of was that the wheels that propelled the tank tracks were unprotected and so I shouted to Frank “Hit the bastard in the tracks, Frank“.  The gun muzzle dipped slightly and, just as the tank moved, we fired hitting the track propulsion wheels.  The tank halted abruptly, swinging to one side.  Still full of fight they turned their gun in our direction and fired again hitting the bank in front of our gun.  Our next shell must have disabled the turret as they opened the escape hatch and ran for their lives back towards their lines.  George Prosser, our Troop Sergeant, had left his Troop H.Q. when he saw we were about to engage the tanks and laid down by the gun taking pot shots with his rifle.  He hit the last German to leave the tank who fell by the side of his tank.

‘..The other two tanks that came through with the one we had just stopped were on the right and left of our position.  I decided to engage the one on the left as it was close to the outskirts of the town and firing mortars at a target in our lines.  It was a perfect target silhouetted against a small hillock.  I gave the necessary commands – direction – range – and a zero lead fire.  Frank pressed the firing pedal and this time the shell penetrated, exploded inside the tank, and blew it into small pieces as its own ammunition went up.  There were no survivors.  The third tank had not moved from the point where we had first sighted it and its turret moved slowly round searching for our gun.  I re-laid the gun on the new target, gave the order “Fire!”. Bill Vaux had already loaded and Frank followed the tank traversing left and right as it searched for our position. Frank talked to himself as he followed the target, “Keep still you bastard” and as the tank paused for a second, he fired, completely destroying it, as we had the previous one.

‘..No more tanks were in our immediate vicinity and we waited to see if any more came through the gap in the woods we were defending.  Heavy mortar fire was making our position very uncomfortable and we were about to return to our slit trenches when a Sergeant from the 2nd Gloucesters ran over to our gun pit.  He was delighted we had stopped the tanks but pointing to a small cottage about 300yds to our left he told us another tank was holed up behind it having got this far without being seen.  The Sergeant told me no one was in the cottage, the French family were long gone and his men who had been using the cottage had all gone into the trenches when the attack commenced.  We opened fire on the cottage, one shell through each window and one through the thatched roof. The whole place went up in flames.  We waited but no tank emerged.  Later, on our long march into captivity, I met the Sergeant again and he told me that the tank was burnt out at the back of the cottage as a result of our attack.

‘..Major Cartland, who together with Lt. Hutton-Squire and Lt. Woodward had observed this action from the very exposed position at the rear of the gun pit, came to me with new orders.  He said we could either leave the gun where it was and move to a temporary safer position or recall the towing vehicle and recover the gun in the usual way.  No doubt he was aware of the difficulty we were having with the damaged wheel and did not wish to risk the gun crew out in the open.  We decided to recover the gun, which in normal circumstances we could do in under a minute.  However, the damaged wheel proved difficult and it took both Frank and myself to get in on the axle, leaving the whole crew and vehicle out in the open.  We quickly hitched the gun to the towing hook and as we were on grass and facing up hill shouted to Clark to drive on and ran pushing the truck through a gate in the wall to the comparative safety of the main road.  Next day I returned to the gun pit.  It contained many large fragments of mortar bombs and the top of a nearby tree had been blown off and was lying in the gun pit.  Bill Vaux, who was with me, counted the empty shell cases, twenty-one in all. He considered it was too many for the net result of only, at that time, three confirmed tanks destroyed. He buried 17 empty shell cases in the slit trench.  He then invited over the next few days all he could find to come and see our three tanks destroyed with four shells!

‘..When we got our gun and truck out on to the main road, Major Cartland and Lt.Hutton-Squire were discussing the re-siting of the gun when a message came that tanks were attempting to break through a road block.  As an attack was imminent it was decided we would fire the gun on its wheels.  This again was something we knew the drill for but had never done or seen done.  It called for a fourth man in the crew whose job was to hold the gun spike used for lifting in the trail eye and stop the gun turning over on recoil.  “Tiny” James, the biggest man in our crew, was detailed for the job and we went to action stations. We were more worried about what would happen after we fired than the threat of the approaching tank. Major Cartland moved a French 75 field gun alongside us, manned by a crew of French officers.  He then took over the Bren gun vacated by moving “Tiny” James and we all waited.  Lt. Hutton-Squire, as always with complete disregard for his own safety, had gone down towards the road block to see what was happening.  Tension mounted and then an anti-climax as round the corner from the direction the tanks were expected came C Troop’s Dispatch Rider Len Griffiths on his motor bike.  By this time Len was one of the few still riding his bike, and as always he was full of the joys of spring. “Hello you shower of so and so’s” he greeted us and produced packets of cigarettes from his saddlebags for us all.  A bout to throw a couple of packets to the Bren gunner he noticed for the first time that is was the Major.  Throwing a very smart salute he apologised and saying that he knew the Major was a non-smoker like himself he gave him a large handful of 2oz bars of Cadbury’s chocolate.  A runner came up from the roadblock with news that the tanks had withdrawn back to their own lines and the immediate crisis was over.  Major Cartland called Len Griffiths over and instructed him to go to his H.Q. and take the B.S.M. and his staff to Regimental H.Q. This was the last we saw of him until after the war. He told me that after Dunkirk when the roll of the Regiment was called, he was the only man to parade when C Troop was called. He was decorated with the Military Medal for his exploits on the road back to Dunkirk.

‘..Apart from intermittent mortar bombing the attack on Cassel appeared to have petered out.  Major Cartland gave us the up-to-date situation as he knew it and was far from optimistic about the situation as indeed none of us were. One of B Troop’s guns that had left the town that morning returned with the truck badly shot up and the gun disabled. Major Cartland sent Bombadier Matthews and the gun crew back to R.H.Q.  Shortly afterward Lt.Hutton-Squire returned and, after a conference between Major Cartland, Woodward and Hutton-Squire, the guns in our sector were re-sited.  Lt. Woodward’s A Troop had done sterling work during the attack in positions adjoining the left flank of C Troop, Bdr  Davies had stopped two tanks at point-blank range.  Both tanks crews were killed outright.

‘..One gun from the 13th anti-tank Regiment was in the area where C1 had been that morning, and was being operated by its one remaining gunner, knocked out five tanks.  Apparently a fifth column sniper hiding in the town had picked off the gun crew one-by-one. The last survivor of the gun crew saw the tanks approaching along a sunken road.  He bravely got into the layers seat, hit the first tank, turned his gun on the last tank in the line, disabling it, and blocked the other tanks in a position where they could not move.  He then destroyed the three other tanks which were completely trapped.  All-in-all, some forty German tanks were destroyed on that Sunday afternoon.

‘..Next morning the German infantry put in a rather half-hearted attack unsupported by artillery or tanks. This was easily repulsed by heavy machine-gun fire from the many Vickers machine guns located around the ridge.

‘..Our remaining problem was the heavy mortar fire. Lt. Hutton-Squire told us he knew the position of the German mortar battery.  Some two hours later they returned in high spirits having destroyed the mortar battery without any casualties to themselves.  They were full of praise for Lt. Hutton-Squire who had led them to a perfect position for the attack and brought them back to our lines before the German infantry realised what had happened.

‘..During the next few days, we observed the activity down on the plain below us. The German troops were active but too far away for us to engage.  At night we could see burning towns at our rear.  They were Calais and Dunkirk.  What we did not know was that we were nearly surrounded and cut off from the rest of the B.E.F.’

 

German Tanks Destroyed

The German attack developed on a wide front, but the resistance of the British guns destroyed another 25 enemy tanks during the afternoon.  The German attack made some progress towards the D948 road down to Steenvoorde, but at 16:30 the attacks ceased.

Possible counterattack 

Another 53rd Worcester Regiment anti-tank troop, commanded by Major Mercer arrived to reinforce the 209 Battery.  Mortaring and air attacks continued, but there was no general attack.  Major Mercer’s visit, just after mid-day, raised the hopes of the defenders that a British counter-attack might develop.

However no such action was planned and a decision had already been made by British HQ staff based at Dunkirk that the Cassel garrison should be evacuated.

 

East Yorkshire Yeomanry withdraw to Cassel 

Sketch map from East Yorkshire Yeomanry War Diary showing the new E.Y.R. positions on 28-29th May 1940 as the Mont des Recollets position became untenable. North is orientated to the right. 

 

War Diary, Ox & Bucks Light Infantry Regiment

‘The Brigade was ordered to hold defensive positions at Cassel and Hazebrouck at all costs, to protect the withdrawal of the rest of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.). 1 Bucks were attacked in earnest on 27-28 May and suffered so many casualties that they had ceased to be an effective fighting force.

Their Battalion HQ and HQ Coy were surrounded and eventually overrun on the evening of the 28th. 4 Ox & Bucks and 2 Glosters were also being subjected to enemy attacks at Cassel from 27 May until 29 May, by which time the town was surrounded and the Germans were penetrating the area.

Withdrawal in daylight was impossible, but an evacuation during the evening of 29-30 May was attempted.

However, increasing difficulties in keeping contact during the night and continuing enemy attacks resulted in the majority of the remaining personnel being captured or killed before reaching Dunkirk.

 

140th Regiment’s War Diary, 28th May 1940

‘The enemy carried out no attacks during this day. The Northernmost Troop fired continuously on enemy Troops seen digging in mortars N.W. of CASSEL. There was no other enemy movement seen during the day. The Commanding Officer, Lieut. Col. C.J. Odling, T.D., had been wounded about midnight 27th/28th May and I was therefore now in command. of the Regiment and I spent most of the day with the 145 Brigade Commander [Somerset].