27th/28th May 1940
Just after midnight on the 27th/28th, Brigadier Stopford and the Brigade intelligence officer went out to visit each of the battalion HQ’s and to impress on the CO’s that there must be no withdrawal from the current positions which were essential for 5th Division to carry out its task of shielding the BEF as it retreated to the coast. With him, he brought 3 replacement officers for the RSF. Lt Mellish, 2Lt Clement and 2Lt Wilson.
His first visit was to the BHQ of the Seaforths, based on the northern outskirts of St Eloi. He found both their CO and adjutant somewhat shaken and unable to reorganise their troops. He gave them the task of reorganising and holding the Brigade reserve position.
Next, he visited the Northamptons, whose BHQ was in a farm just a short distance south east of St Eloi. Major Wetherall was in command and had a good grasp of the situation and they discussed putting out patrols across the canal near where their forward defensive lines were. Capt Heisch and the members of B company that had joined the Northamptons defending the Bluff in the afternoon were there and received directions from Brigadier Stopford on how to find their unit.
Passing through the German forces from IR 54 that had crossed over the canal between the Northampton’s positions and the road
Lt Mellish – replacement officer
2Lt Clement– replacement officer
leading to the ‘Pitche Menu’ crossing, they arrived at the Vergote farm at about 02:30 BST on the 28th.
Shortly after arriving, a heavy contact was heard towards the canal by the Brigadier. This was Captain Heisch and the members of B company trying to re-join the battalion, they stumbled across and were ambushed by the German patrol situated in either the farm or the old bunker. They were quickly overwhelmed and forced to surrender.
2RSF war diary:
At about 3 am Stopford came to my HQ which was in a Belgian farm. He appeared to be extremely tired.
I explained to hi that so far, we had been unable to get in touch with any units on our right or left. He then explained to me that on the right was 13 Bde, although he did not know where.
I told him I was not happy about the situation on my flanks and he explained what the trouble was. He was told that the 10th Brigade would counter attack through us later at about 09:00 BST and told us to try to occupy the high ground within the woods in front of the farm.
Lt Col Tod replied that he would not retire whatever happened. This was later miss-quoted by the War Office Public Relations department as “Tell Brigade I’m not going a foot back!” They were of course looking for positive stories to tell the civilian population of the UK after the Dunkirk operation and the complete withdrawal of the BEF from mainland Europe.
Those officers not involved in patrolling, manning the defensive lines or wounded, were in BHQ when the Brigadier arrived, these included Major Morrison and Capt Arkwright. Lt Thomson and 2Lt Knight were in the room but were asleep. On his way, back to
Brigade HQ, Stopford took several of the RSF casualties in his car including 2Lt Wilmot who was evacuated through Dunkirk.
2Lt Wilmot recovering from his wounds in the UK
Just after 03:00 BST Tod sent out Lt Thomson in his remaining carriers to attempt contact with both the Inniskillings and Northamptons. It is not known whether he was successful with his mission, neither units record any carriers arriving with messages. What is known is that at some point his carrier was disabled near the Vergote farm and both he and his driver Fusilier William Stott were killed by machine gun fire coming from a farm near the Bois du Ravin.
The final stand
At the same time, Tod extended what was left of the battalion and advanced through the woods to occupy the high ground around the farm once again. The right flank of this attack clashed with and cleared out the German forces from the Palingbeek stream near the house, during this action 2Lt Knight of the signals platoon was killed. By 04:00 BST the RSF held positions throughout the wood, anchored on a WW1 concrete shelter on the left, down through the woods to the right until it met the stream, and then back towards the entrance to the white house and the farm.
The walking wounded, plus a few of BHQ remained in the farm to defend to the North. Almost as soon as the RSF took their positions, the German artillery opened up with a preparatory barrage from the mixed guns of ID 31 behind the Bois du Ravin, the shells arcing up over the white house and impacting in the woods held by C and D Coy. As this pinned them down, the reserve battalion (10th) from IR 17 launch their attack from woods near the White House. They are supported by an MG34 of the 11th Bn placed in the first-floor window.
One of the German company commanders talks us through some of this action:
The next morning our Battalion commander is seriously wounded in the thigh by fire coming from the woods by the side of the pond. He was carried into the large lounge with explains the blood stains. Similarly, another Jäger in my platoon gets a bullet in the lung during the attack on the Vergote farm.
Early on the 28th May, I put a machine gun in the window on the first floor to suppress the Tommies occupying the woods, 100 metres away. Cutting off their retreat and allowing our reserve battalion to attack.
We get assistance from the anti-tank artillery to break the remnants of resistance.
Captain Ellis, OC of C Company could see this attack forming and sent 2Lt Green, his 2i/c to warn Lt Col Tod. During this run across the open ground he was hit by fire from the MG34 in the first-floor White House window. He delivered his message, but eventually lost a leg and some fingers.
The move back into the wood and the subsequent actions are described, (somewhat out of sequence) in Lt Livingstone Bussell’s diary:
We returned to our old positions in the wood at 3 a.m. [28th May] I now realized that we would never get away from it. D company took up a position on the forward edge of the wood with C company behind us covering our right. After we had been there some time we heard a great commotion and some firing behind us, so Johnny and I went back to see Major Ellis and were informed that he had just had a skirmish with the Germans, so he decided to come back and join forces. Enemy machine guns now started firing from all parts of the wood and we made several attempts to do them in but with only rifles it was a hopeless task.
2/Lieut. Green tried to get back to Bn. H.Q. but was badly wounded in the attempt.
It was just after 2Lt Green delivered his message back to BHQ, that Lt Col Tod decided to withdraw the HQ Coy and those troops in the ditch back into the farm. It was during this move that Todd was hit and fell into the stream being helped back to the farm by Captain Arkwright.
Looking up the avenue of trees towards the house (1939). HQ Coy positions were in a ditch behind the trees on the left.
(Photo courtesy of Golf & country club de Palingbeek)
The following words were recorded from the Germans by Jacques Cossart:
The line of Scottish trenches is submerged as the tidal wave of soldiers headed towards the Vergote farm, which across the stream is spitting return fire from the house and cattle shed.
At once the green uniforms spread out around the farm yard, entering doors and climbing into windows. Hand grenades explode all over the place, revolvers crack and smoke, bayonets thrust, blood is splashed onto walls and pavements. Ceilings and tiles are shattered along with the farming implements. The attack is so furious and the defence so stubborn that the buildings will carry the scars of battle for a long time to come and even a few days later they are still finding bodies in the roof space.
During this fight, Brigadier Stopford made repeated attempts to establish communications with BHQ. These were led by the liaison officer Capt McNeil Cooke, initially with Sgt Williams and then lastly with Sgt S Thomson. Their final attempt at about 09:00 nearly ended in disaster when their carrier was repeatedly hit by anti-tank gun fire from the Bois du Ravin.
Sgt S Thomson
Capt McNeil Cooke – 17 Bde Liaison officer
Sgt Williams was recommended by Captain McNeil Cooke for the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions on that day:
No 3129046 Sgt T Williams is recommended for the D.C.M. in recognition for his services during May 27th and 28th on the Ypres – Comines canal.
This serjeant was under my personal observation on many occasions under heavy fire and was always noted to keep cool and use his brains.
At About 9am on the morning of the 28th May, I took this N.C.O. in a carrier from Bde HQ to try to establish contact with my Bn HQ, we were unable to get nearer than the St Eloi crossroads on account of an enemy A/T weapon. At this point we found troops [Inniskilling Fusiliers] in the ditch unable to move as small arms fire was coming from three sides.
I ordered Sgt Williams to drive his carrier to a covered position and dismount the Bren gun and engage the enemy on one front., he carried out my orders with perfect coolness and courage – on engaging the enemy with Bren gun fire, the enemy fire from the rear ceased and the troops in the ditch managed to retire. It is for this action in conjunction with continuous reports of coolness and courage that I recommend this N.C.O. for the D.C.M.
One carrier that did get through that morning was from the Royal Artillery. The valuable support from their guns was essential for the 5th Division to hold this salient long enough for the BEF to escape. This of course can’t be done without a clear understanding of where the enemy is and how they can be engaged:
The situation gradually deteriorated. Observation post lines were cut, and wireless communications jammed. It was decided to send one officer from each battery forward into the line to establish contact with the forward company headquarters and direct fire. One officer went forward in the regiment’s sole remaining armoured observation vehicle, the other on foot. At one time, the latter officer was actually several hundred yards in front of the infantry. The reports received from him were invaluable.
The officer in the armoured vehicle succeeded in in going about a mile before a shell burst overhead and wounded his assistant. He then proceeded on foot a mile and a half, finally reaching a drive leading up to a chateau. The company of Royal Scots Fusiliers installed there was practically surrounded, and the artillery officer returned to his armoured observation post under heavy fire from three sides with the intention of calling for battery fire. It seemed certain that the company of Royal Scots Fusiliers could not escape being surrounded, and in fact, very few of these men did get back.
The results of this officer’s call for fire can be seen shortly. With IR 17’s assault a few hours old, IR 54 then crosses the canal behind the RSF and finally cut them off from the rest of the BEF. Their attack across the canal between the Pitche Menu and Spoil bank is recorded by Jacques Cossart:
Since the attempted crossing of the canal the night before, between the collapsed bridge and the Spoil bank, strong resistance has been offered all along this front. Heavy artillery fire has been exploding along the eastern slopes of the canal, during the evening, night and early morning this blasts large holes in the British defence. However, during the night, the German artillery arrives at Hill 60 and at dawn starts to bring its fire down on the British. Under this fire, the British conduct a staged withdrawal the same as they did the previous day. Section by section, the line moves back using the craters and trenches to good effect. At 09:00 the new Germans attack will be thrown against the trenches on the opposite bank. The RAF drops several bombs on this advance causing several large craters, but no casualties. The attack starts very well, threatening the flank of the British retreat, but soon the resistance stiffens, their machine guns mowing down the advancing Germans. The Jägers fall, shout and crawl but soon they sweep over the British positions. As the Jägers of the 54th rush the lip of the canal bank, more M.G.s open up and they have to move forward in small bounds, bit by bit, inch by inch they keep moving, taking one position after another until they finally reach the Warneton road near the “Dome House” where the 3rd Bn of the 17th are awaiting to join up with them.
Fusilier Leydon whose bravery was never officially recognised
It is interesting to note that the RAF dropped several bombs on this advance, although no records for this mission can be found. With their line of retreat cut and the pressure from IR 17 continuing to build Lt Col Tod’s letter after the war records some of the furious defence of the farm:
Very soon they had broken through our thin line and at the same time had worked round both flanks to get behind us. It was about this time Peter Green, bringing me news of the situation on the left flank was badly wounded. He delivered his message and I then decided that our only hope was to fall back to the farm again for there at least we could put up some form of all-round defence. This was done and, on the way, back I was hit and knocked into a stream.
We held the farm for a time but with the Germans all around. Both sides lobbing bombs at each other. It was during this fight that a bomb was thrown at Albert Arkwright and his servant, Leydon jumped forward to catch it, when it exploded in his face. We all thought that Leydon was killed, his face was all smashed but actually I saw him later on as a POW, with his face skilfully patched up by a German surgeon. Arkwright got some of the bomb but was only badly bruised.
This close quarter battle carries on for a few hours with casualties on both sides rising. But soon before 11:00 BST, with ammunition running out and few of the battalion remaining unwounded he decided to call it a day:
The situation seemed quite hopeless, the barns were full of our wounded and our ammunition was all but expended. Rightly or Wrongly I then surrendered. [This was the HQ and other troops in the farm, the rest carried on fighting for 2 more hours]
Whilst the decision was being made to pull back into the farm, the German 11th battalion start their attack on the woods containing C and D company.
Jacques Cossart continues with his interview narrative to describe the opening barrage of the fight on the woods with both companies inside:
Suddenly back in the direction of the White House two deafening detonations occur, hardly have they been able to gather what has happened when shells burst and whistle around them. They are the big 150mm guns, the vicious shrapnel whistling everywhere, cutting the bushes to shreds.
The two big guns are assigned to the 17th Jägers and have been working their way forward until they are 1500 metres from the scout at the front of the battalion. They have been setting up for this moment since 2 o’clock in the morning in the Bois du Ravine. Their arc of fire is straight into the heart of the Ossuary wood over the White House. A steel vault is formed well over the high roof, finishing just 50 metres from the Scottish position but sometimes they crater the ground earlier and burst a few metres north peppering the north gable end and biting off a few handfuls of rushes from the roof!
While the explosions cover the wood of the Ossuary in smoke, suddenly the lake itself explodes in fountains as the British heavy artillery responds, spreading its fire from the Park all the way to the Ravine wood. In the Bois du Ravine the German guns continue firing over the White House and are spotted by British planes that can see their green uniforms and report their presence.
Both side of the pond are ablaze with gigantic eruptions that shake and crack the land like a volcano.
To complicate the narrative of this action, the woods here have grown amongst the ruins of the old “White House” of first world war fame. So that term is used to describe both the old and new house. To help resolve this I have changed Jacques Cossart’s overly dramatised narrative below to say, “the ruins” when it talks about the ruined white house under the woods.
Part of the ruins of the pre-ww1 White House, that provided cover for one of the RSF Bren guns during the final fight. (Winter of 1940) (Photo courtesy of Hugh Shipman)
Suddenly the German artillery in the Bois du Ravin stops dead. Is it that the counter battery fire has silenced them? Or is it that H hour has arrived? No, it is just a brief pause as the firing resumes once again.
However, on the north side of the valley of lilies, the assault companies of the 10th battalion are standing by facing the wood of the Ossuary. On the other side of the canal, the southern slope, the 2nd assault wave of the 11th battalion is ready. A hundred metres distant facing the north corner of the Ossuary woods is the support elements of the 10th, providing cover for their comrades during the attack, 6 men of the first squad face out across the open ground but the rest are looking from the Oseraie into the wood of the Ossuary.
On the other side of the valley of lilies, the 2nd wave of the 11th Battalion have remained in place on the edge of the woods, ready to move through the first assault group if there is trouble. They have dug small trenches in the woods to preserve any surprise they might have.
Generalleutnant Cranz 18th Infantry Division discusses coordination between his artillery and infantry regiments. (From the author of Unser Weg Zum Meer 1941)
The Oberst [Colonel] in charge of the regiment received the order to start the attack and for the battle group to move forward as one. The 10th battalion will lead the charge through the Oseraie and will take the first part of the Ossuary wood and then the two companies will move forward in a pincer movement.
On the side of the canal at the top of the bank atop a small mound, surrounded by his soldiers, the Hauptmann [Captain] commanding the 10th battalion awaits a lull in the British artillery fire and then makes the fateful gesture.
All along the line to the extreme right flank the men rise as one and climb the short slope to the plain and run the 50 yards to their first objective, whilst in the Oseraie, the rest of the company moves through the wood and each member already feels isolated from the rest of the world. Hiding behind a few shovels of hastily thrown earth the six men watch the edge of the Ossuary wood, 300 metres away in rapt silence. “Forwards” a Gefreiter [Lance Corporal] shouts in a guttural voice, all 6 stand up and move forward, but as they reach the mid-way point between their objective and the apple trees, a machine gun, hidden in the north-eastern horn of the wood lets rip and all 6 men drop, either dead or wounded.
But the Jägers are already moving out of the Oseraie and have reached a small wooden structure near the small pond of the water lilies, they move now through the small thickets along the edge of the pond, as random shots fly past them and strike the dam of the large pond. They are formed in a long line, and like a wave will break onto the enemy position as one.
The soldiers around the wooden structure are silent for a few moments, coiled like tiger’s ready to pounce. A burst of fire triggers them into action and they run forward shooting wildly. The wave crashes forward then appear to shake, hesitate and stop. They are forced to drop to the ground and return the incoming fire.
While these events are unwinding on the other side of the valley, the Hauptmann [Captain] commanding the 11th battalion leads the second wave from the front. Walking in line with his skirmishers, until they reach the White House, where they move around the north side and meet up with the troops occupying the Avenue entrance and facing Vergote farm. Their route forwards presented no serious difficulties, whilst that of the 10th trying to clear the Bois du Ossuary is faltering. The 11th have brought forward a machine gun into the farm near the Bois du Faisanderie, whilst a second machine gun, within the White House halfway up the stairs, fires directly down the break in the woods adding to the misery of the defenders of the Ossuary wood.
As one, two assault companies of the 11th battalion rush forward and reach the foot of the mound on which the white house stands. The Hauptmann rises again for the next bound, his voice rings clearly through the sounds of battle as he indicates the target, but suddenly a well concealed Scottish machine gun, opens up and the Hauptmann’s arms fly up in distress before clutching his shredded thigh and moaning with the pain of his wound.
However, the order is already given, and the attack begins. On the lawn that goes up to the White House, even without their commander green uniforms move forward as the gun continues to shoot from behind a red bush on the waterfront. The machine gun is obscured by the thickets surrounding it, whose saplings are being cut down by the bursts of return fire. Under this continuous lashing, the attacking forces still push on towards the Ruins
They rush into the house from all sides, through the large shattered glass terrace door, the living room windows and the kitchen. A Jäger who is critically injured comes in through the side entrance and collapses against the wall leaving more bloody hand marks on the wall. On both sides of the great pond, the situation has become critical and will remain so as long as the Bois du Ossuary continues to hold. The situation must be stabilised soon.
The Jägers of the 10th battalion change their tactics and instead of attacking head on along the path of the arbour, they use the woods to outflank the position allowing them to get behind the machine gun and break into the north-eastern horn of the woods.
However, the Jägers in the White House have occupied the doors and windows setting up a machine gun on the stairs to fire down the break in the trees. The machine gun in the arbour falls silent, but the defence continues, and it opens fire once more. All that can be seen through the smoke is the flashes of guns and the passage of bullets towards ‘the ruins. Across the open ground, a burst of six shots fly towards the White House, three enter through the corner door, one shattering a cupboard, the next hitting a Jäger in the chest and the third shatters a Jäger’s head, his body collapsing in a pool of crimson blood and leaving scraps of his scalp and brains plastered on the wall.
The Scots who advanced to the wood, along the north edge of the park are taken to task by a machine gun that has already been set up by the Jägers from the Vergote farm, in the old pill box of the 1914-18 war. Under the protection of this fire another group of Jägers has broken into the Bois du Ossuary at the northern edge and works their way closer to their enemy. Finally, across the field of battle, green uniforms emerge and rush into a final assault. All along the northern edge of the park the defence collapses and the defenders of the woods come under a fierce artillery barrage coming from Klein Zillebeke and assailed by rifle fire and grenades from three sides they also surrender. The defence finally collapses.
The odds were overwhelming and as the numbers of unwounded men and ammunition dwindled. Lt Livingstone Bussell, Lt Livingstone and the remaining members of C and D Coys fought on throughout the morning with the hope of this counter attack from 10 Bde in their minds.
As the day wore on and it approached 13:00 BST, their fight came to a close also.
All the morning was spent having odd skirmishes in which several people were killed or wounded including C.S.M. Rolfe killed. When they turned a mortar on to us we decided no more could be done that was of any use, so packed in; the time was 1.30 p.m.
We were all searched on the spot and equipment such as revolvers, compasses, field glasses were taken from us, also a certain number of cigarettes. We were lucky because I gathered later that some people were stripped of their watches, cigarette cases, fountain pens etc. Fus. Best had a large hole in his left side which I covered with a field dressing. Although he marched several miles with it, I found out 18 months later that he recovered. Looking round I noticed with satisfaction that we had accounted for several Germans.
In my interview with Major Livingstone (then 2Lt) he remembered the final few hours; how useless his .38 service revolver was and how CSM Rolfe had died during a fierce bayonet fight with the Germans in the entrance to the old bunker.
In the records of ID 18 which IR 17 reported to, it is written that they captured 47 RSF prisoners in these final two actions. So, what of the other 125 prisoners of war? The presumption here is that these were taken by IR 54 on the 27th and other survivors tried to escape north towards the coast.
After the battle
As each position fell silent and the Germans were victorious, the experiences of the troops were very different. Throughout history, any troops that surrender are at the mercy of the victors. The adrenaline of the infantry that have just been under fire, seen their friends killed and have been in close quarter battle with their enemy can take over a situation and needs to be controlled by their officers.
Captain Arkwright gives us an insight into this whilst writing his escape report for MI9:
Immediately the position was overrun it appeared to be the intention of the German assaulting troops to shoot all survivors. The arrival of a German officer altered the attitude of the German troops, and we were sent back under guards whose behaviour was exemplary.
Lt Livingstone Bussell describes the next hours as a POW of both C and D Coy.
We now marched about 14 miles to a H.Q. near Gheluvelt carrying Corporal Hammerston, who had been shot possibly in the stomach, in a wheel barrow. He also recovered. En route we passed through our own artillery barrage and some bursts were unpleasantly close.
On arrival at the H.Q. we met Capt. Holme and about 6 officers from the Northampton’s and Seaforth’s. We were given a sort of barley stew and some brown bread and then went to sleep on straw on the floor at 6.30 p.m. We were woken up at 8.30pm and rushed outside. As it was daylight I thought it was morning because I was in a semi-conscious state and only realized it was the same day when it began to get dark later on.
We now marched 8 miles to Courtrai. This was the worst march I have ever done because I couldn't keep my eyes open and it was so dark it was difficult to see the man a pace or two ahead of one. Arrived at Courtrai at 5.30 a.m. and marched miles around the town before we were eventually put into a room in the station. About 12 officers and 100 men lying on top of each other.
The next day, at 1.30 p.m. when very hungry taken to the prison where we met Major Morrison, Capt. Heisch, Lieut. Robertson, 2/Lieut. Bowlby and some officers of other regiments. Saw Capt. Arkwright in the distance but he was taken to the hospital as he had been hit in the back. Colonel Tod had also been hit. We were able to buy some food from the Belgians and managed to get a wash in the prison laundry. I slept on a very small straw pelisse.
For those who had been wounded during the fighting, if they were lucky then the Royal Army Medical Services got them back to England as is recalled in this extract from 2Lt Kempthorne’s diary:
Prisoners of war, probably from the Royal Scots Fusiliers being marched out of the Pavilion into the courtyard, ready to be marched east. (Photo Courtesy of Bill Robertson)
On Arrival at the dressing station I was placed on a stretcher and laid on the floor. Although I could see nothing, I gathered that I had been put into a room with the very badly wounded and judging by the screams and groans this would have been the case.
No doctor came anywhere near me and my blood covered field dressing was still in place. I have no idea how long I remained on the floor and the first thing I can remember was being spoken to by a man with a broad Ayrshire accent, who addressed me by name. It turned out to be Piper Hardy, who had been our company piper, when I had been with D company. He knelt beside me and told me that he had been wounded in one arm, but that his feet were ok. He asked if he could do anything for me, I told him that I wanted to urinate, so he beckoned a medical orderly who in due course arrived with a bottle.
I told Hardy that I was far too sore to cope. While all this was going on, German shells began dropping around the building and Hardy got me up against a wall for protection. Just at that time I heard the noise of a vehicle pulling up quite close to us. It appeared that this was an ambulance which was evacuating the wounded and taking them to the field hospital further down the line. Hardy told me to stay where I was, and he went over to see the driver. I could hear the conversation, which went something like this. “Have you got any room for one more?” The reply indicated that he already had a full load. The next thing I heard was Hardy pleading with the driver, saying “This is my officer, he is real bad, please find room for him” His pleading must have worked, as the next thing I knew was that I was hoisted up and placed on the floor of the ambulance and we began moving.
I am thankful to say that Hardy survived and returned to the UK. Some months later, I was able to contact him, to thank him for his efforts and I still have his reply, in which he modestly says that he was only doing his duty!
I had no idea where the Field Hospital was situated, but we presumed that we must be heading for the coast. It was a nightmare journey and as usual the refugees fleeing towards the sea blocked all the roads. The bombing and strafing from the Stuka bombers continued as before.
All army ambulances are clearly marked with large red crosses, but this made no difference to the German pilots, who seemed to want to destroy everything on the road. Our vehicle was hit by machine gun fire several times, but we still kept going. I must have lapsed into moments of unconsciousness from time to time and remember little about the trip, other than the moaning and groaning of some of my badly wounded fellow passengers. As far as I was concerned, I was totally blind, so I could not see what was going on. This may have been just as well. Finally, I was told that we arrived at the Field Hospital, situated on a hill, overlooking the port of Dunkirk, which I am told was completely covered with black smoke from the burning oil tanks, of which there were many in the port area. As far as I know, we spent the best part of a day there, where we just lay on the floor and waited.
We were told that we were to be evacuated by hospital ship and in due course were removed by ambulance to one of the moles in the harbour, where the hospital ship “Paris” was tied up. The harbour was under constant bombing attacks and to make matters worse, it was within German artillery range. The noise was deafening. By this time, they had removed the filthy field dressing from the wound and my blood-stained battledress had been sponged down, but I had not even had a proper wash.
I can still remember my stretcher being lifted over the ships rails and then being placed on a bed somewhere and being attended to by a nurse who changed my dressing. Never did a female voice sound so lovely and I was handled with loving care. After the hell, we had been through, the female touch was quite something. The worst thing that I of course, was never able to see her face. With bombs and shells dropping all around us, we set off on a zig zag course for Newhaven, where we landed on the 31st of May.
A hospital train was waiting for us and we were met by an enthusiastic crowd who handed round cups of tea and cakes and gave us a great welcome home. We were bound for Lichfield where we were placed in an emergency hospital, which had been a pre-war mental asylum, with the name of Burntwood. On arrival at Lichfield railway station our stretchers were laid out on the platform. Ladies of various voluntary organisations dispensed cups of tea and cakes and cigarettes to us. I remember one lady stopping by my stretcher and asking me whether I would like a cigarette. I replied in the affirmative but asked her to light one for me and I could not see anything. As she did this I heard her say to a friend “poor boy is blind. Sad, he looks so young”
By late 1940, it was clear that many of the original members of the 2nd Battalion would not be returning from Belgium, France or the hospitals around England where many of the injured now lay. Unfortunately, any records of their participation in this action were either destroyed in a fire at the HHQ in Glasgow or scattered in many disparate service records or private diaries.
Over the years I have tried to piece together what became of the men who sacrificed themselves to allow the BEF to escape and fight another day, but this will be a never-ending journey, that can only be completed by you, the relatives and friends of those that were there.
Vitally important task
It is no doubt that this action came at a massive cost to those units that took part in it, but it is recorded that, the sacrifice of the few, enabled the bulk of the BEF to escape and eventually return in 1944 to begin the liberation of Europe.
The Commander 2 Corps has asked me to convey his warm congratulations and thanks to the 5th Division and other troops who fought so gallantly in co-operation with the 5th Division on the 27th and 28th. It is his opinion that it was entirely due to our actions that the whole corps was able to affect a withdrawal and that unless we had held the Ypres-Comines Canal so successfully the safety of the whole B.E.F. might have been put in serious danger. I am confident that this fact will be confirmed by history.
It is a matter of great satisfaction to all of us that we are able to carry out such a vitally important task with complete success. It was not done without heavy loss: this must be so always when troops are asked to hold wide frontages to the last.
It is sad to see such fine units reduced by casualties to their present small numbers, but it would be much worse if they had not achieved a vital task and inflicted far heavier losses on the enemy.
I am indeed proud to have under my command such a splendid body of troops and to all Commanders and Troops I offer my sincere congratulations and thanks.
H.E. Franklyn. Major-General
Commander 5th Division
Field 29th May 1940