Battle which paved way for Dunkirk evacuations
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THE Battle of Cassel, which took place in May 1940, has been called the forgotten last stand of the Second World War.
It was fought by the 2nd Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment under Lt Col Michael Duncan and but for its success, the evacuation of British and Allied troops from Dunkirk could not have taken place.
Cassel is a small town in northern France, 20 miles from Dunkirk where the 2nd Glosters, already under strength, were ordered to hold back the German advance.
With the 1st Buckinghamshire Regiment, the Glosters held an 11-mile line that stretched from Cassel to Hazebrouck.
Against overwhelming odds, including heavy tanks, the local regiment held their ground and fought to the last round of ammunition in a fiercely contested exchange that continued for three days.
The majority of those who took part were either killed or taken prisoner.
But the action bought vital time for the British and French forces being evacuated from Dunkirk.
The British forces had prepared a defence on the hilltop, emplacing antitank guns and barricading the narrow streets of the town.
After scoring initial successes against the tanks of Panzer Regiment 11, which had made the mistake of advancing without infantry support, the British garrison was heavily attacked from the ground and the air by German forces.
Much of the town was reduced to ruins by bombing.
Most of the garrison’s members were killed or captured by the Germans during the fighting or the subsequent
attempted breakout towards Dunkirk, but the defence they had put up played an important role in holding up the Germans while the Dunkirk evacuation was taking place.
Major Ronald Cartland, brother of the novelist Barbara Cartland, lost his life in the battle.
The family has close connections with Tewkesbury and there is a Cartland war memorial in the Abbey grounds.
Military historian Brigadier Nigel Somerset made the point that the success of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and its allies from Dunkirk had rendered the Battle of Cassel that made it possible all but forgotten.
He wrote: “Practically all of those who fought through the retreat and the rearguard action at Cassel in May 1940 were either killed or spent the rest of the war in captivity, thus deprived of freedom, family and fame.
“That this force received scant recognition there is not the slightest doubt. That but for the stand at Cassel and Hazebrouck many units of the British and French that were evacuated to the UK would not have reached either Dunkirk or any other beach, there is also little doubt.”
Lt Col Michael Duncan was taken prisoner and incarcerated in the notorious underground reprisal camp at Posen.
A graphic account of the battle and of his escape from the prisoner of war camp is given in his book Underground From Posen.
For a full account of the heroic action, visit the regimental museum at Gloucester Docks.
Incidentally, among the armada of small ships that evacuated British and Allied troops from the beach at Dunkirk was Queen Boadicia II.
She remains in service to this day providing visitors with trips on the canal from her home in Gloucester Docks.
The Evacuation of Dunkirk by war artist Charles Cundall
Troops arrive home after the evacuation
Lt Col Michael Duncan
The Cartland War Memorial