In the latest of our occasional history series, Paul Harding, at Discover History, tells of Worcestershire soldiers’ role at Dunkirk

As we put away the bunting from celebrating the 75th anniversary of VE Day, some Worcestershire people will be remembering loved ones killed 80 years ago in the retreat and evacuation from Dunkirk.

In 1939 a British Expeditionary Force sailed to France to supplement the French and Belgian troops who were threatened with another German Invasion. Amongst this force were the 7th and 8th Battalions of the Worcestershire Regiment and the 53rd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery (Worcestershire Yeomanry).

After an extremely cold winter and a lengthy period of inactivity, the Phoney War ended on the 10th May 1940 with the Germans pouring across the borders. At first the three Worcestershire units were enthusiastic about having ‘a pop at Gerry.’

The 53rd Anti-Tank Regiment became the first County Regiment to see the enemy, when they were bombed in Henin Leitard.

Several accounts say the Regiment managed to down six enemy aircraft during the following weeks.

The 7th Worcester’s, who had been based in Rumegies quickly ditched all non-essential equipment including the Battalion Drums when they heard the news. These drums survived the war and were discovered in 1945 in the same cellar they had been left in. A local man hid them and cared for them for five years. When the 8th Worcester’s received orders to move, the Commanding Officer released his pet ferrets into the French countryside.

At first, orders pushed units across the border into Belgium to meet the attack but it was soon obvious that the enemy were fighting in the way they had started to develop in 1918. A Mass of Infantry and Tanks, supported by Artillery and Aircraft in a coordinated strike! A tactic which is now referred to as Blitzkrieg - A lightning war!

By May 16 most of the Allied units across Belgium were beginning to withdraw in bounds, using rivers and canals as natural barriers. The 8th Worcester’s and the 53rd Anti-Tank Regiment RA both ended up passing through the site of the Battle of Waterloo. This time in support of the French.

Private Philip Gilbert became the first casualty in the County Regiments, when the Germans attacked C Company of the 7th Worcester’s at Genval. What followed was a series of withdrawals, acting as a rear guard, which saw some very heroic actions.

By the end of the month the BEF was shattered and in some cases becoming split up from each other. The 7th Worcester held up the Germans numerous times including at Givenchy, where Earl Coventry was killed when D Company was overrun! The 8th Battalion ended up heroically fighting at Escaut and Wormhoudt. Meanwhile the 53rd Anti-Tank Regiment managed to destroy 26 enemy tanks and armoured vehicles at Wormhoudt, within a stone’s throw of fellow County soldiers.

Some men had been cut off and it was at Wormhoudt that a handful of men from the 8th Worcester’s and the 53rd Anti-Tank Regiment RA were murdered by the SS in a barn, after surrendering. In total about 100 men were massacred here from numerous regiments.

This fighting retreat allowed for the BEF to reach the coast around Dunkirk. When the 8th Battalion got aboard a ship for home, some of the men recognised her as the Glengower - a paddle steamer which conducted pleasure cruises in the Bristol Channel, picking up at places such as Weston Super Mare. 

Captain William Tennant was chief staff officer to the First Sea Lord, who was given the job to oversee the evacuation from the area. ‘Dunkirk Joe’ as he became known had been born in Upton upon Severn and went to school at Hanley Castle Grammar before his long Naval Career.

On June 2 1940 he walked the beaches covered in the detritus of retreat with a loud hailer ensuring those who could escape the Germans were aboard ships heading home to Britain.