4th and 5th Battalions in France 1940

17 January 1940

H.M. King George VI inspects the 4th and 5th Battalions at Cheltenham prior to their embarkation for France on the 25 January.

‘It was a freezing day. We were lined up along the High Street in companies to await the arrival of the King. I could see into the bow windows of the ‘ White Swan’ – all the people inside, as snug as a bug, having a tot to keep out the cold. Any road, we really felt proud of ourselves as our King walked by. Soldiers of the King ready for anything.’ – Private Jack Stevens

The cold follows the battalions across the channel. France is gripped by a bitter winter. The cold is intense, truck radiators freeze, and many roads are impassable.

16th May 1940

The 4th and 5th Battalions cross the border into Belgium, and are ordered to the River Dendre, to guard river crossings at Lessines and Ath. They have been in position less than 24 hours when they are ordered to withdraw and march back to France.

The march is long, hot and dusty on cobbled roads crowded with refugees and other troops.


The 4th Battalion take up positions five miles to the east of Arras at Athis while the 5th are sent into Arras.

Battle of Arras

As the Germans advance rapidly towards the French coast the area around the town of Arras is selected for a British counter-attack.

On 21 May the British counter-attack begins west and south of Arras. At first the attack is brilliantly successful but the British force of 2,000 men and 75 tanks are hopelessly outnumbered.

4th Battalion, Athis

21 May, the battalion are holding bridges over the River Scarpe. Three Geman tanks appear on the road bridge. One is immediately knocked out with a Boys rifle and the two remaining tanks withdraw.

Over the next three days the German force moves ever closer and enemy sniping and mortaring increases.

‘We held grimly onto our position, even after the enemy Stukas had virtually wiped our protective artillery. I was sent forward to find ‘D’ Company and tell them to withdraw. When I arrived at the farmyard, I found Captain Donking, with about 10 men.

He said “You can’t get any further. See what you can do with that Bren gun.”

I grabbed the gun, put the butt to my shoulder, looked through the sights to where I could see the Jerries advancing and pressed the trigger. Nothing happened. I tried desperately to remember the rules for stoppage and realised the gun needed more gas. Again, almost frantic, I altered the gas regulator and got the gun into position and looked through the sights. I could see five men making their way towards us. I pressed the trigger and saw them throw their arms in the air and fall to the ground. I felt violently sick. But Captain Donking’s voice broke through my nausea, “Come on, we’ve got to get out of this.” – Private Fred Walker, D Company Runner

By the evening of the 23rd, Athis is in flames, and the German advance can no longer be stopped. At 3 am, under the cover of a thick mist, the 4th Battalion withdraw to Lille.

5th Battalion, Arras

19 May, the 5th battalion arrive in Arras. They spend the next five days defending the city. The order to withdraw almost comes too late. The city is all but surrounded. At 2.30 am on the 24 May the battalion finally receives its withdrawal orders and begins the dangerous and difficult journey to Lille.

Captain J M Whittaker’s letter to his wife, ‘Darling Sausage’, May 25th 1940

The letter describes how the 5th Battalion were scattered leaving Arras

‘…We got very scattered yesterday and we are still collecting ourselves together. They all turned up all right: there was a minor scare about me a few nights ago when I was lost with a section of carriers all night. They had nearly written me off when we arrived back the next morning…’

After the Battle of Arras the 4th and 5th Battalions make their way towards Dunkirk. It is a long, hot, and difficult journey.

‘I dared not take my boots off in case I never got them on again, my feet were so blistered. We marched over 36 miles that day. We panted along like loose-tongued dogs, our heavy equipment, blankets, shovels dragged us down and jolted painfully on our backs. We were exhausted and hadn’t eaten for the past 18 hours as we had no food supplies.’ – Captain Bob Metcalfe

Between the 30th and 31st May both battalions are tasked with joining the defence of Dunkirk. For this reason they are amongst the last troops to be evacuated.

The 4th Battalion prepare to evacuate on the 1 June but are turned back.

‘I got right along the stone part of the mole where the destroyer was about to cast off. It was about 9.30 pm and an immaculately dressed staff officer on the bridge, in service dress and Sam Browne belt, shouted through a megaphone, “Terribly sorry chaps – it’s now too late to take on any more of you – General Alexander knows all about it and we’ll be back again tomorrow night.” – Second-Lieutenant Peter Kirby

They eventually board ships at 9 pm on the 2 June and the 5th Battalion on the 3 June.

‘There were many stories of heroism on the Mole: Sergeant Alan Heathcock, a fisherman from Redcar, took charge of a rowboat as no-one else knew how too….a soldier slipped off the edge but was saved by another pulling him back by his equipment straps.’ – Sergeant Richard Hall

4th Battalion marching through Moreton-in-Marsh after their return from Dunkirk

‘Some ladies in the Women’s Voluntary Service gave us… Field Service postcards to fill in. I just wrote in pencil, ‘I am quite well in England.’ Put the date: 3.6.40 and signed it. The postcard arrived next day in Great Ayton, Middlesbrough. My family rejoiced that I was safe.’ – Private Jack Stevens, D Company, 4th Battalion.

Find out more…

6th and 7th Battalions in France and their retreat to Dunkirk

Objects and archive from the Green Howards Collection

Introduction to the Dunkirk campaign