Two weeks after the launch of the German attack on France on 10 May 1940, the situation of the British and French forces was desperate. British and French troops in Belgium and northern France found themselves in a pocket, under assault from three sides. On 25 May Lord Gort, the British commander, made the decision to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force via Dunkirk. However, if the troops were to reach Dunkirk it was essential to hold open a corridor to the port. The French had helped to relieve British troops in order to enable them to join in a counter attack against the German breakthrough in the South.   However, the British troops were now used to defend the Dunkirk corridor. The base of the corridor was held by the French. The West was held by the British via a series of defended strong points and in the East a defensive line was formed along the Ypres- Comines Canal. The British 5th Division was given the task of defending the canal line and was in position by 26 May.

The canal, begun at the end of the 19th Century, had never been completed. In most places it was merely a reedy depression, bordered by a low embankment, and was hardly a formidable obstacle.  A railway line and embankment ran along the Eastern bank of the canal for much of its length, but at Hellebeke the canal swung to the west, leaving British troops defending just the railway line. British forces were outnumbered by three to one and so defending the Canal line and railway line was going to be an enormous challenge. However, the defenders held one major advantage. The equivalent of six field regiments of the Royal Artillery, plus five medium regiments were positioned on the reverse of the Messines Ridge and, taking advantage of the excellent observation from the ridge, were able to break up many German attacks.

The Germans began probing attacks on 26 May and launched full scale attacks on 27 May. Small groups probed forward seeking weak points and, once found, these became the focus of major assaults. All along the line the Germans made breaches in the British defences. In the North, the Seaforth Highlanders and Royal Scots Fusiliers were defending the railway line in between Ypres and Hollebeke. Here, the defenders were soon driven back over a mile. In the South, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and Oxford and Buckinghamshire Regiment were driven back and German troops began to infiltrate up the Kortekeer Valley behind the canal line.

A crisis developed by the afternoon of 27 May, when the threat of a German breakthrough appeared imminent.  German success in achieving this would have enabled them to cut off the corridor along which British and French troops were streaming towards Dunkirk. Late in the afternoon a mixed force of 2nd Cameronians, 6th Black Watch, 13/18 Hussars and Royal Engineers launched a counter attack in the South towards Comines. A second counter-attack took place in the evening, east from Messines, by the 3rd Grenadier Guards and 2nd North Staffords. The Germans were driven back to the canal and the line was stabilised. German attacks continued on 28 May, but made no headway, and by now the evacuation from Dunkirk was well under way. On the evening of 28 May, British units began to withdraw and head for Dunkirk.

map ypres comines canal

The Royal Scots Fusiliers on Hill 60

Hill 60 is a preserved area of the World War 1 battlefields and is on Zwarteleenstraat, which runs in between Werviksestraat and Komenseweg, to the South of Ypres. To access the Caterpillar Crater and Battle Wood cross the railway bridge from Hill 60 and take the footpath on the left along the side of the railway line.

Hill 60 is a pile of railway spoil created during the construction of the Ypres-Comines railway. At 60m above sea level it gave sweeping views towards Ypres and was one of the most bitterly fought over locations during World War 1. Across the railway line is Battle Wood and another heap of spoil here was known to the British as the Caterpillar. Hill 60 and the Caterpillar were captured during the Battle of Messines in 1917 and the craters of the two massive mines exploded in the attack are still clearly visible. In May 1940 Hill 60 and the Caterpillar once again became the scene of ferocious fighting. The 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers arrived here on 26 May, with the task of defending the railway line. The hill, surmounted by a substantial World War 1 concrete bunker, commanded the local area and, although on the Eastern side of the railway line, it was incorporated into the battalion’s position.

The World War 1 concrete bunker on Hill 60
The World War 1 concrete bunker on Hill 60

The battalion’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Tod[1], had created a “fighting patrol”, commanded by 2nd Lieutenant Richard Cholmondeley, which was made up of 14 handpicked of men from the battalion. During the night of 26-7 May, Cholmondeley and his men were sent north-east to reconnoitre the local area and establish the presence of the enemy. They did not have far to go and at Hill 62, another notorious World War 1 site, they came across a German artillery battery. The patrol killed one of the gunners and took another prisoner, before returning to the Fusilier’s position on the railway line.

On 27 May, the positions on the railway line came under heavy attack and soon the Seaforths to the Fusiliers’ left and the Inniskillings to their right were driven back to the canal line. Now in a precarious position, the Fusiliers were also forced back to the canal line, but in the withdrawal men from the battalion were left behind, cut off on Hill 60. The evidence of the fight for the hill is still clear: the concrete bunker bears the scars of German fire on its northern side and a German 20mm shell is still embedded in the concrete. The Australian WW1 memorial also still bears a number of bullet holes in its bronze plaque.

German infantry began to emerge from Battle Wood towards the canal line, but although they were driven back by British artillery and machine guns, a number of Fusiliers were still resisting on Hill 60. Roused from sleep after their night time exertions, Cholmondeley and his patrol were given the task of leading a counter attack in order to rescue the men on the hill. Leaving the canal from the Palingbeek, and supported by the battalion’s Bren Gun Carrier section, the Fusiliers swept into Battle Wood, driving the Germans back over the railway line and relieving the men on the hill. During the fight, Cholmondeley led an attack on a machine gun which the Germans had established in the World War 1 mine crater on the Caterpillar. He was killed along with a number of his patrol.

[1] Tod was taken prisoner on 28 May. He became the senior British Officer in Colditz.

The Caterpillar Crater and Battle Wood
The Caterpillar Crater and Battle Wood

The Royal Scots Fusiliers counter attack was described by a local resident, Jacques Cossart, collecting details of the story from both British and German soldiers, who in turn occupied his house.

Suddenly without warning, tanks[1] leap out from behind the small woods, the Scottish soldiers following them. An immense Hurrah is sounded that could be heard in the village of Zillebeke and the Scottish soldiers enter the Park again. Along with their tanks, they charge forward, the Germans turn and run everywhere at the same time. They push forwards and regain their positions along the edge of the railway line.

The Palingbeek

On leaving Hill 60 and the Caterpillar, head west along Zwarteleenstraat, turn left onto Komenseweg and after 350 yards take a right turn right onto Palingbeekstraat. There is plenty of parking at the bottom of the road. This area is known as De Palingbeek.

Standing by the café at the Palingbeek, and looking back along Palingbeekstraat, the canal is behind you and Battle Wood is at the end of the road. After their counter-attack, the Fusiliers raced back to the safety of the canal along this road. A bridge had been constructed over the canal here, which had collapsed soon after its construction. There is a display describing the building and collapse of the canal bridge. Remnants of the bridge can be seen as one walks down into the canal cutting; Cossart refers to the remains of the bridge in his account. The Fusiliers scrambled down into the cutting of the canal here to reach the British lines on the far side, followed by the Carriers. Cossart once again described the scene in dramatic terms.

The retreat takes place through the woods in good order, whilst Bren gun carriers form a rear guard, protecting them like loyal dogs. The last carrier is now on the road back to the collapsed bridge; its mission finished, it accelerates to top speed. It goes past the burning artillery convoy and hooks into the fields and down the slope. It heads down to the ford over the canal, its caterpillar tracks losing grip on the loose stones. The tracks then bite the mud on the far bank and it begins to rise again. They have almost made it; however the Germans have finally seen it from their positions along the base of the Bluff. A burst of machine gun fire hits the driver. The carrier zigzags into the old bridge structure; it swerves, overturns and catches fire. A few meters away in their trenches in the woods, the Scots Fusiliers are unable to stop this tragedy. They rush to rescue the crew before they are burned alive.

[1] These were Universal Carriers, often called Bren Gun Carriers

The area is now covered in trees. In May 1940 there was a clear view across the canal cutting

Bedford House Cemetery

Bedford House Cemetery is located 2.5 Km south of Ieper town centre. The cemetery lies on the Rijselseweg (N336), the road connecting Ieper to Armentières. From Ieper town centre the Rijselsestraat runs from the market square, through the Lille Gate (Rijselpoort) and directly over the crossroads with the Ieper ring road. The road name then changes to the Rijselseweg. The cemetery itself is located 2 Km after this crossroads on the left hand side of the Rijselseweg.

The cemetery is on the site of the Chateau Rosendal, named Bedford House by the British during World War 1.  The chateau was destroyed during the war and the only remaining evidence of its existence is some fragments of masonry and the moats. The cemetery contains over 5,000 World War 1 graves. There are 69 World War 2 casualties buried in a semi-circular plot, on a raised area at the back of plot 6. Plot 6 is found to the left of the entrance.

The majority of the World War 2 burials are men of the Seaforth Highlanders and Royal Scots Fusiliers who died defending the Ypres-Comines railway and canal line between 26 and 28 May 1940. Cholmondeley is buried here, together with men from his fighting patrol; Fusiliers Boyd and Paterson and Lance Corporal Barnes.

Richard Vernon Cholmondeley was a mining engineer, born in Australia in 1909, the son of a Vineyard proprietor. He married in London and settled in Dorney in Buckinghamshire. His brother Charles also served in the RAF and there appeared to have been a strong family interest in flying as Richard also held a pilot’s licence. Charles served in RAF intelligence and was one of the chief-architects of Operation Mincemeat, the plan to deceive the Germans prior to the invasion of Sicily in 1943. The operation became the subject of the 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was.

Richard Cholmondeley
Richard Cholmondeley

A further 117 men killed between May and June 1940 are also buried in Oosttaverne Wood Cemetery.

Messines, the counterattack of the North Staffordshires

Driving east from the centre of Messines village on the N314, turn right at the junction with the N366 and there is a lay-by immediately on the right.

The 2nd North Staffordshire Regiment and 3rd Grenadier Guards were part of the 1st Division and had been engaged in heavy fighting on the River Dyle and in the subsequent withdrawal. On 27 May, both battalions were getting some rest after an 18 mile march and at 4.30 pm received orders to proceed to Dunkirk. At 5.00pm further orders were received that they were under the orders of the 5th Division and were to proceed to 5th Division headquarters at Ploegsteert, a three mile march. On reaching Ploegsteert at approximately 7.00pm, the battalions were informed by the 5th Division CO, Major-General Harold Franklyn, that the Germans had breached the canal line and that the two battalions were to conduct a counterattack that evening at 8.00pm.

On reaching their start line, the Staffordshires had marched 24 miles since the previous evening, had had no meal and were now to launch an attack over three miles of unfamiliar ground in order to push the Germans back over the canal. Standing at the junction of the N314 and N336, looking back to Messines, with its distinctive church tower, one can appreciate the advantage which the British had in holding the Messines Ridge. Observation from the ridge allowed British artillery to target villages, crossroads and any location likely to be used to concentrate troops, as well as protect the flanks of the counter-attack.

The axis of the Staffordshire attack was along what is now the N314. The Staffordshires advanced with two companies forward, two in the rear and the Bren Gun Carrier section in the centre.  Advancing from Messines, the battalion crossed what is now the N336, advancing east along the line of Komenstraat, towards the canal. The advance began in the face of little resistance and was swelled as parties of men from the Royal Warwicks were picked up as it continued. However, after just over another half mile, at the next crossroads, the Staffordshires came under heavy mortar and artillery fire. It was now getting dark and the battalion CO, Lieutenant Colonel Butterworth, set up an HQ in the farmhouse sited about 150 yards beyond the crossroads.

The advance continued in the dark, until 11.30pm, when the mixed force dug in and occupied farms on a line just short of the canal. The following day, the British defenders were subject to heavy shelling and infantry attacks, but the Germans failed to make any further progress. However, to the North the canal line had given way, placing the Staffordshires in a precarious position.

At 7.00pm the order was given to withdraw to Messines, which was done in the half light. Trucks were waiting in the village and after dumping and destroying their stores, the survivors of the Staffordshires began their journey to Dunkirk.

Comines (Komen) Communal Cemetery

Comines (Komen) Communal Cemetery is located on the edge of the town of Comines (Komen) on the Chaussee de Warneton, N515. Leaving Comines on the N515, heading towards Warneton, the cemetery is on the left,. The military cemetery plot is surrounded by civilian graves and is on the right of the main entrance.

There are 100 casualties from May 1940 buried in the cemetery, virtually all killed during the battle for the canal line; mainly men of the Grenadier Guards, the North Staffordshire Regiment, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. There is a plaque placed on cross of sacrifice by the local town and the local authorities lay flowers here each year. The moving inscription is:

They left their country to obey the call of duty. They died as heroes for us and for their country. We will never forget them.

Platoon Sergeant Major Arthur Cassford is buried in Grave 8. PSM Cassford was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part in the fighting on the Escaut on 21 May 1940, where, despite being wounded, he organised repeated counter-attacks to prevent the Germans from breaking through the Guard’s lines.

Second Lieutenant Paul Cooke is buried in Grave 1. He was a rugby international who played for England against Wales at Twickenham in 1939, which England narrowly won 3- 0.

Some families suffered more than one loss during the war. Lance Corporal Philip Griffiths, Grave 87, also had a brother serving in the RAF. Pilot Officer Barry Griffiths served in the Far East, where he was a navigator with 358 Squadron. As the war ended, the squadron was engaged in dropping supplies to prisoner of war camps. Pilot Officer Griffiths’ Liberator aircraft crashed, killing all on board.

The memorial to the battle of the Ypres-Comines Canal

On leaving the cemetery turn right and cross the road. After approximately 100 yards, there is an open grassed area.

The memorial to the battle of the canal at Comines
The memorial to the battle of the canal at Comines

This is the course of the canal as it runs through Comines to join the River Lys. At the back of the grassed area, there is a memorial to the British soldiers killed in the battle. The memorial is abstract in design and not particularly easy to interpret. The most plausible interpretation which we have discovered is that the centre feature, bearing a cross, represents the British forces, while the outer feature represents the German forces racing to surround them, as one might see on a military map.

A section of the abandoned canal can be seen behind the memorial. This was the section of the canal defended by the Oxford and Buckinghamshires and one can see that it would not be difficult for determined infantry to cross.