The week starting on the 25th. May eighty years ago, was to be a memorable week for the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. On the day that Lord Gort the commander of the British Expeditionary Force made the crucial decision to evacuate his troops through Dunkirk, three battalions of the Regiment were ordered to take up positions on the perimeter of the pocket that was being formed to protect the withdrawal routes to the port and the coast. The 4th. Territorial Battalion – the ‘Oxfords’ – had moved overnight from their concentration area to the hilltop town of Cassel on the western side of the perimeter to take over from an ad hoc body called ‘MacForce’ and put it into a state of defence against the German tanks which they knew were gathering to the west. With them in the town were the 2nd Glosters and a sizeable contingent of antitank guns and artillery, and some light tanks. There was no food.
The 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion of the Regiment – the ‘Bucks’ – also Territorials, had been despatched to the small town of Hazebrouck six miles further south to join an improvised garrison scraped together a few days previously to defend GHQ which was planning to take over town. Sorting out the troops milling about in Hazebrouck the Bucks and their supporting artillery prepared to take on the panzers, whose armoured reconnaissance patrols had already come nosing in from the west and bumped into the defences. Overhead both Cassel and Hazebrouck, the Luftwaffe air observation aircraft circled constantly, calling in the Stuka dive-bombers when they spotted a likely target. Both towns were already severely damaged.
On the eastern edge of the perimeter the 1st Battalion, the 43rd Light Infantry had been sent to the Great War battlefield below the Messines Ridge to hold the line of a dried-up canal running south from Ypres with two battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. On this side of the perimeter the approaching enemy were infantry in large numbers. On this side, too was the Belgian Army in a state of disintegration and about to surrender, creating a huge hole in the defences which would have to be filled by the British. The 43rd had been marching almost continuously since the day on which they deployed near the battlefield of Waterloo on the 17th. May. They had made a successful counterattack on the line of the Escaut a few days before but were now pushed into place without time or tools to dig in against the advancing enemy.
The panzer divisions, once having reached the Channel Coast, were immobilised by the ‘Panzer Halt Order’ which gave them time to rest, rearm and refuel and they only began to move again early on the morning of the 27th. May. This gave the Oxfords and the Bucks a vital two days in which to prepare. When the leading battlegroup of tanks and motorised infantry of 6th. Panzer came up the road from St. Omer towards Cassel they ran straight into the roadblocks set by the Oxfords’ D Company at the foot of the hill. After a fierce fight in which several armoured vehicles were knocked out by the Oxfords’ antitank gun, D Company pulled back into the town and the two German battlegroups deployed to attack
up the hill. The only approaches are up steep winding roads and into narrow streets. The town is protected by walls and gates, impassable to tanks. One attack came in at the western end and the other from the east and onto the Oxfords. Some enemy infantry managed to get in but after serious fighting in among the houses, were evicted. Company Sergeant Major Bailey of A Company led a counterattack with the bayonet and grenades and the antitank guns battered the tanks trying to come up the roads. The battalion mortars pounded the concentrations of infantry in the woods below the hill. Fighting continued all day but the Germans failed in their attempts to take Cassel.
In Hazebrouck on the 27th. May two 8 Panzer tank-infantry battlegroups coming in from the south and west ran into the antitank screen put round the town by the gunners and only after losing several tanks did they succeed in getting into the town. Street fighting continued all day until the garrison was dispersed, having run out of ammunition. Overnight of the 27th/28th. May the men of the Bucks and the supporting units slipped away in small packets, not many knowing where they were going, leaving Battalion HQ and the officers and men who had fallen back on headquarters in the massive Warein orphanage in the middle of the town determined to hold on until the last. It would take the Germans of 8 Panzer the whole of the following day to subdue the defenders of the orphanage. In the end with the building collapsing in flames and the cellar full of wounded, the survivors surrendered. Elsewhere, the Quartermaster Captain ‘Patsy’ Pallett leads a bayonet charge of cooks and drivers to drive some SS from a village to the south of Hazebrouck before walking to Dunkirk to escape.
On the eastern flank of the pocket after an artillery barrage the 43rd. Light Infantry were attacked by waves of infantry who swarmed across the dried-up canal and the open fields, past the farms and hamlets held by the Battalion. The 43rd Light Infantry and the Warwicks were swept back, the enemy only being stopped by a tremendous defensive bombardment delivered by a hastily gathered group of artillery regiments. A counterattack in brigade strength in the evening of the 27th. swept back the Germans and prevented them cutting the route over the river Lys through the village of Warneton along which Montgomery’s 3rd. Division moved north that night to plug the hole left by the Belgian surrender. Under orders, the 43rd Light Infantry moved by stages to the beaches and were evacuated to Britain by the Royal Navy.
They were the only one of the three battalions to get home. Only about 190 of the Bucks avoided capture. The Oxfords and the Glosters held on at Cassel throughout the 28th and 29th.May, under ground attack and shellfire but repelling all further attempts to take the town. The panzer and motorised divisions had now encircled the hill and when the garrison slipped out in the night of the 29th. May, only a very few managed to get though the cordon, most being captured after a series of fierce skirmishes in which several officers and men were killed or mortally wounded, including the Adjutant, Michael Fleming, brother of Ian,
and Company Sergeant Major Bailey, when leading another bayonet charge. Only four officers and about 80 men of the Oxfords came home.
The Bucks and the Oxfords had fulfilled the task they had been ordered to perform. They had held up the panzers for sufficient time to allow the BEF to reach Dunkirk and the beaches, thus saving thousands of men for the eventual return on D Day four years later.