At Dunkirk

As a new film continues to pull people in to the cinemas, we focus on what happened to The Green Howards in those fateful few weeks in the early summer of 1940.

The regiment’s 4th and 5th Battalions had been in France since 26th January 1940 and were joined by 6th and 7th Battalions on 24th April.
The 4th and 5th initially went to Lille and then Wavrin to assist in the construction of a 2nd Reserve Line, intended to be a north-western extension of the Maginot Line. The 6th were sent to Irles and the 7th to Farbus.

For these Battalions their move forward began on 16th May, closely followed by a confused and erratic retreat from one defensive line after another.  More than once orders were issued to dig in and hold a position at all costs, and only a matter of hours later orders were issued for a further retreat. As Synge relates in his history of the regiment during World War Two…

“…often without rations, at times separated from their Brigades and, indeed with companies and platoons fighting for long periods on their own, it is impossible to tell a coherent story of those chaotic days..”

The 23rd of May was a typical day. It was hot and sunny, and the men of the 4th Battalion were in Athies. Enemy sniping and mortaring of the forward positions grew in intensity.  The Battalion transport under Lance Sergeant Peacock managed to get away with some casualties; an action for which he was awarded the Military Medal for his fine leadership.

By early evening enemy pressing was becoming unbearable. Lt Col Littleboy withdrew his HQ to a position outside the village leaving 2nd Lt. Kirby in the attic of an Estaminet to watch the approaches of the village, a position that became extremely uncomfortable both because of the close proximity of the enemy and the fact that the building was partially on fire.  The exits from the village were also reinforced in case of need. Again, plans went awry given the rapidity with which the enemy was able to turn flanks. The men in Athies soon came under fire from the rear and patrols sent out reported back that the enemy was now in behind the Battalion position.

The usual quandary now presented itself to local command, stand and fight to the last man, be taken prisoner, or move further back in the hope of joining similarly stranded units to make a more coherent defence. It was here that Private George Thompson from North Shields was captured.

Brigade orders eventually put paid to any thought of meeting the enemy head-on and the long withdrawal to Dunkirk began.

See the handwritten orders instructing the withdrawal in the museum.

Battalions had now ceased to exist as coherent units; part of 4th Battalion got away from the Mole on 30th May whilst elements of 5th Battalion were acting as rearguard on the Bergues-Furnes canal.  The remainder of the Battalions withdrew to Bray dunes shortly after midnight on 31st.  The 5th battalion had been reduced from the 30 officers and 737 men it could count on 16th May to 17 officers and 516 men on the dunes at Bray where…

“Wearily the 4th Battalion moved eastwards along the sands and quickly settled down in company areas, digging holes for shelter from any ‘overs’ as the Germans shelled Dunkirk. The day passed quietly with one excitement: a Hurricane flew low over the troops and dropped a be-ribboned message. There was a rush for the ‘stop-press’ news, which was eventually brought to Battalion HQ. It was a message scribbled in pencil by the pilot: ‘Good Luck! We can do no more.’”

Captain Whittaker of 5th Battalion summed up the sense of confusion after so short a campaign and the short distance, physical, emotional and psychological of a place of safety…

“Those who got away sailed into the night, the sky behind them bright with the fires of the shambles that was Dunkirk, the horizon shortly to be lit by the sun shining over the cliffs of Dover on the morning of June 3rd – eighteen days after we had first gone up in to Belgium.”

In a case of truth mirroring (or being better than) fiction, we’ve recently received an account of an escape from Dunkirk from Richard Benton, whose uncle Rodney Bland found The Green Howards to be a useful ally on the beach…

My Uncle, Rodney Bland, and his father, J.W. Bland, lived and worked in Manchester but prior to them numerous generations of the family had lived in Swaledale as far back as the middle of the16th century. It was James Bland (Blenkiron) who made the move from Swaledale to Manchester and from the role of lead miner to a most successful salesman in the confectionery industry.

Rod (left) had joined the territorial army just before the World War Two and when war broke out was posted to France where, as a member of the Transport Corps, he found himself driving trucks with ammunition, fuel or foodstuffs to the front line troops.

All went smoothly through the ‘phoney war’ until the Germans began attacking.  At Dunkirk, Rod was told only infantry soldiers were to be evacuated, so he and his mates were left with the role of defending the bridgehead. After several days it became clear that the evacuation was nearing the end…

“Actually we’d gone up to the Mole at Dunkirk, but they would not let us on. They said it was for the wounded only and it was the last boat. (The Queen of Kent – a paddle steamer). While we were there, we thought what can we do and we were very disconsolate. A fellow came up to us who was a sergeant from the infantry with a load of other soldiers. I looked at these men and the only difference in our uniforms between them and us was that they’d got bayonets and we hadn’t -because we were motorized troops. Anyhow there were several dead bodies round about that had bayonets on them. So we went to pinch them and put them on our belts. We sat near the other lot of soldiers. When the Sergeant came back and said “Fall in The Green Howards” that told us who they were. So we fell in with them and the sergeant looked at us and said “wait a minute you are not A section are you?”, I said “No sergeant we’re B section.”  “Oh” he said, “you might as well stay with us.”  So that is how we got onto the boat.”

The Green Howards were based on Catterick and Richmond, and Rod told me that prior to boarding he talked about Swaledale with several of the soldiers.  Knowing Rod, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he changed his accent from Manchester to Yorkshire to convince the sergeant!

The men who managed to get away formed the backbone of an army that licked its wounds, learnt its lessons and built its strength for the day in June 1944 when they would return to France.