The 8th Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment in France 1940

At the outbreak of the war the 8th Battalion commanded by Lt Col J Johnstone was in camp at Windmill Hill, Salisbury Plain. By the 13th September 1939 it had received orders for mobilization at Marlborough. The Battalion was part of 144 Infantry Brigade of the 48 (Wessex) Division.

On the 16 January 1940 The 8th Battalion landed in France and was dispatched to the Gort Line on the Belgian border. It remained there until March when it was transferred to the Saarland and the Maginot Line. But in early May it was once more back in Belgium and caught up in the confused withdrawal of the BEF to Dunkirk

On 22 May 1940 48 (Wessex) Division, then defending the line of the River Escaut, was ordered to withdraw to France, as a consequence of the Belgian surrender. On 26 May 144 Brigade concentrated round Wormhoudt, some 12 miles south of Dunkirk, to meet a tank threat and to enable other units to get to the coast. A withdrawal was planned for 2100 on 28 May and that night the weather broke in a tremendous thunderstorm. About a mile to the north east from Battalion HQ in Wormhoudt Chateau, A and D Companies were defending the village of Wylder and so protecting the right flank of the Brigade, while Battalion HQ and C Company withdrew along the road to Herzele. With them came the survivors of a troop of 52nd Anti-Tank regiment (The Worcestershire Yeomanry). This troop alone had accounted for some 26 German tanks and had man-handled its guns after its transport had been destroyed. On the way to Herzele, B Company, which had held the southern extremities of Wormhoudt, were met swinging along at a good pace, wonderfully fresh and in good spirits.

Only a short halt was called at Herzele, and thence a march was made north-east to Bambecque. It was here throughout 29 May the Battalion was to fight a rearguard action worthy of the finest traditions of the Regiment. Orders were received to hold Bambecque until 2100 hours. B Company took up a position north of the River Yser covering the road from Herzele, with C Company just west of the village itself. Battalion HQ was in the village. By 1130 hours Capt Farrar had successfully withdrawn D Company half a mile to the east on to the road from Bambecque to West Cappel. German tanks were now coming on in large numbers from Wormhoudt in the south-west and Bergues in the north-west. Tanks would come up first to draw fire and then to break through for the lorried infantry behind. The LMGs of A and D companies were having good shooting. By 1700 hours an enemy tank attack had closed in on D Company HQ and set it on fire. Capt Farrar was last seen firing an anti-tank rifle at enemy tanks at close range. By 1800 hours both companies were so badly cut up as to make further resistance impossible, and the survivors, 3 officers and about 60 other ranks, dribbled into Battalion HQ to reorganize.

Meanwhile stragglers from other units were coming in and it was difficult to organize them effectively in support of the defence. by 1730 hours the circle was beginning to close around Bambecque and B and C companies were heavily involved. Capt E W Berry organized a working party and built a very stout road-block of farm-carts and tractors on the Bambecque road below Battalion HQ. The same officer had previously had a great shoot round the Wormhoudt market square from a carrier, sending German infantry scuttling like rabbits into the houses.

At about 1800 hours a Liaison Officer from Brigade HQ arrived with orders for a withdrawal at 2100 hours, and a route to Bray Dunes, on the coast north-east of Dunkirk, was given. The Adjutant then had to get out marked quarter-inch maps to as many subordinate commanders as could be found, no easy task in view of the fact that the enemy now had every possible route under observation. Various runners volunteered to take out the orders, but none of them got through to their destinations. At last darkness fell and at 2105 hours a start was made thinning out the defenders, who began to wind their way in single file along the road to Rexpoede. The last detachment finally left at about 2200 hours under the command of Captain Berry. But B and C Companies had suffered grievous loss. B Company indeed, which had been widely deployed, fought on until its ammunition was exhausted and then, with the net drawn tightly around it, had no alternative but to surrender. The survivors as they trudged the long miles to Bray Dunes all through the night at least could know that, despite heavy sacrifices, their endurance had ensured the safety of thousands.