Bat­tle which paved way for Dunkirk evac­u­a­tions

Gloucestershire Echo - - NOSTALGIA -

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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

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