1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers and the fighting retreat to Dunkirk

On 29th May 1940, 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers reached the safety of Dunkirk having fought a retreat against Rommel's 7th Panzer Division on the way.

In September 1939, 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers joined the British Expeditionary Force. The Force moved forward into Belgium in May 1940 to meet the German Army head on as they attacked through the Ardennes. Using Blitzkrieg tactics, the German Army broke through the French defensive lines and forced the BEF into a fighting retreat.

Initially, the plan was for 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers to play a part in the defence of Brussels. However, that role quickly changed in the face of German military superiority. The retreating British Expeditionary Force would need a rear-guard to ensure troops could make it to Dunkirk. Among that rear-guard was 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Royal Irish Fusiliers in France, 1939

Imperial War Museum Photo: IWM (O 758) (Part of the War Office Second World War Official Collection). Members of the Royal Irish Fusiliers on the march at Gavrelle, near Arras, France on 17th October 1939. Two of the soldiers carry a Boyes Anti-Tank Rifle. Copyright Major Geoffrey Keating, War Office Official Photographer.

On 17th May 1940, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Guy Francis Gough MC, 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers were part of 25th Brigade, 50th Division. Gough had been in command since 4th May 1940 overseeing last-minute combat training at Arras as the enemy began to advance. The Royal Irish Fusiliers’ did not have a great stock of support weapons. One of their 3″ mortars was unserviceable, and while they had 2″ mortars, there was no high explosive ammunition for them. Only a 35 pound Boyes Anti-Tank Rifle prepared them for battle against the German Panzers. At times, the Boyes could be as hazardous to the soldier firing it as it was to the enemy.

Always press the right cheek close against the rifle well forward on the cheek rest – making sure the cheek is clear of the spade grip and shoulder piece so as to prevent possible bruising and broken bones to the firer.

7th Panzer Division in France, 1940

Imperial War Museum Photo: IWM (RML 132) (Part of the Field Marshal Erwin Rommel Collection). Panzerkampwagen 38(t) Tanks of Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division move across the French countryside in May 1940 accompanied by infantry troops. Copyright Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Photo used under Fair Dealing.

Rear Guard at Meerbeke

Orders received instructed the Fusiliers as the Brigade rear-guard to hold the village of Meerbeke, a key point between Brussels and Hal. The following day, they dropped back to the village of Ninove and engaged the enemy.

On 18th May 1940, the Battalion’s line ran for 3,500 yards on high ground to the north-east of Ninove on the River Dendre. On the evening on 19th May 1940, the enemy brought forward their guns and as the mist cleared the following morning they opened up.

By then, Gough had deployed 3 Companies forward, holding a Rifle Company and Headquarters Company in reserve. Shells fell among the deployed companies around the Dendre. The next set of orders saw the Fusiliers begin to withdraw to Audenarde (Oudenaarde), Belgium on the River Scheldt. Enemy shelling caused some 60 casualties among the ranks of the Royal Irish as they retreated as the last unit in the brigade column.

In the village of Oultre (Outer), enemy infiltrators ambushed D Company, killing an officer and several other soldiers. D company under the command of John Coldwell-Horsfall continued to hold on. Horsfall was a believer in aggressive forward defence. His advice to those under his command was to kill the enemy at the earliest opportunity. Horsfall led a counterattack with his revolver in hand, inflicting some casualties on the enemy. Before leaving the area of the canal, Horsfall ordered the burning of barges that could fall into enemy hands.

John Coldwell-Horsfall received the Military Cross for his actions with 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers during the Dunkirk Evacuation. The citation mentioned that he:

Displayed conspicuous coolness and exemplary cheerfulness.

At this time, A Company was under the command of Major Peter Casella Murphy, born in Dublin, Éire. His Company also came under heavy fire during the retreat from Ninove and Murphy sustained a serious gunshot injury. A bullet had gone through his lung but he remained in command of A Company and marched on with them for several more days. Eventually, he collapsed but made it back to England via Dunkirk where he received a hospital visit from the Queen.

Ulstermen killed on 19th May 1940

Joseph Burns

Fusilier | 6976036

Fusilier Joseph Burns of Cookstown, Co. Tyrone died on 19th May 1940 while serving in Belgium as 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers came under attack.

William James Gillespie

Fusilier | 6975630

Fusilier William James Gillespie of Fivemiletown, Co. Tyrone died on 19th May 1940 while serving in Belgium with 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, BEF.

Robert Johnston

Fusilier | 6975687

Fusilier Robert Johnston of Belfast died on 19th May 1940 while serving with 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

James McCrory

Fusilier | 6978959

Fusilier James McCrory of Gortin, Co. Tyrone died on 19th May 1940 in Belgium with 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers in the British Expeditionary Force.

Fusiliers at Oudenaarde

The Brigade rear-guard safely crossed the Dendre and retreated to Audenard by 20th May 1940. This happened before German machine-gun detachments outflanked the Fusiliers’ positions. Once again, the Battalion came under a strong and sustained enemy attack.

C Company found their route blocked by a blown bridge in Audenarde but by the evening of 20th May 1940, the Battalion reconvened at Belleghem. In the safety of a wooded area, they enjoyed some food and a little sleep. This was only a few miles from Mouscron where the Battalion had ended The Great War.

The next position for 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers to hold was guarding bridges over the River Lys (Leie). Once again, the Fusiliers fought hard allowing elements of the British Expeditionary Force to make it safely through. From Bellegham, the Battalion fell nack to La Bassée by 21st May 1940. The mission of 25th Brigade was the line the north bank of the canal between Béthune and La Bassée facing heavy fighting to the south. 1st Battalion took position on the forward right with 7th Battalion Queen’s Royal Regiment to the left. Along the canal, explosives readied bridges for demolition.

As well as the enemy, the Royal Irish Fusiliers encountered other issues in the Béthune area. They came up against an almost constant flow of fleeing refugees. At times, the Battalion had to force the unfortunate civilians from the road in order to advance.

Belgian refugees on the move in 1940

Imperial War Museum Photo: (F 4358) (Part of the War Office Second World War Official Collection). Belgian civilians flee their homes in May 1940 following German Air Raids as the British Expeditionary Force move into Belgium. Copyright War Office Official Photographer.

Dug in at La Bassée

Lieutenant Colonel Gough established defensive positions, allocating tasks and digging in his Companies along an 11,000 yard front. On 22nd May 1940, reinforcements joined 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers. They included a composite company of around 90 stragglers from various elements of the BEF and a company-sized group of French survivors with a pair of French tanks. There were many wooden barges on this stretch of the La Bassée Canal. In places, they were so densely moored that the enemy could effectively use them as a footbridge. Gough’s troops spent much of the 23rd May 1940 setting fire to the barges and preparing to face the ever-closing enemy. That enemy was 7th Panzer Division under Major General Erwin Rommel.

Fusilier Jack Jackson of 9 Howard Street South, Belfast received the Military Medal for his initiative and leadership during these skirmishes.

When the section commander became a casualty, Fusilier Jackson took command in a critical situation. Subject to heavy fire in an isolated position, he was instrumental in beating back enemy attempts to cross the canal bridge at Béthune.

Belfast Telegraph – 29th June 1940.

1st Battalion deaths on 23rd May 1940

Edward Crangle

Fusilier | 6979409

Fusilier Edward Crangle of Belfast died on 23rd May 1940 as the Royal Irish Fusiliers fell back to defend the La Bassée Canal on the retreat to Dunkirk.

William Slaine

Fusilier | 7042852

Fusilier William Slaine of Cookstownm Co. Tyrone died on 23rd May 1940 while serving in the the British Expeditionary Force with the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Early on 24th May 1940, German soldiers rushed the bridge to the village of Essars, France. The Fusiliers blew the bridge and inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing enemy. Fighting intensified over the following 24 hours. The Battalion withstood heavy artillery and mortar fire, remaining dug in along the canal. At around 1030hrs on 24th May 1940, a Wehrmacht motorised column approached another demolished bridge over the canal.

18 Platoon held its fire until German vehicles had piled up on their motorcyclists who had been brought to a halt by the unsuspected sight of the demolished bridge. When a nice bunch had developed, 18 Platoon let fly with everything that it had. Germans fled from their vehicles to cover, but those in front were cut to ribbons. Survivors, and those from the rear who entered the houses near the road, were engaged and given no respite by P.S.M. Gray with our one 3″ mortar.

Ulstermen killed on 24th May 1940

James Jackson Ewart

Fusilier | 7043495

Fusilier James Jackson Ewart was born in Portadown, Co. Armagh. He died on 24th May 1940 taking part in the British Expeditionary Force retreat to Dunkirk.

Patrick Leonard

Lance Corporal | 6977063

Lance Corporal Patrick Leonard of Strabane, Co. Tyrone died on 24th May 1940 while serving in the Dunkirk retreat with 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Robert Mills

Fusilier | 6975262

Fusilier Robert Mills of Ballymoney, Co. Antrim died on 24th May 1940 during the hard-fought retreat toward Dunkirk as he served in the BEF's rear-guard.

Bridge over La Bassée Canal

Imperial War Museum Photo: IWM (RML 147) (Part of the Field Marshal Erwin Rommel Collection). Panzerkampwagen 38(t) Tanks of Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division cross a pontoon bridge constructed over La Bassée Canal in France during May 1940. Copyright Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Photo used under Fair Dealing.

Escape to Dunkirk

By 2100hrs on 24th May 1940, 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers had sustained 35 casualties. The following day would see the Battalion attempt to hand over positions along the canal. C Company was due to take over from D Company, with C Company’s position occupied by the French. At 0700hrs on 25th May 1940, heavy German fire thwarted the plan. The French instead reinforced D Company who engaged the enemy and held form until nightfall. Meanwhile, the enemy also attempted to outflank A Company, and Gough lost contact with the Composite Company. A Battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers was due to relieve the Irish but this did not take place until the following day.

On 26th May 1940, most of the Battalion marched 8 miles north-east to Rouge Croix. Second Lieutenant MG Johnson and his Platoon from A Company remained in position, fighting their way out of the line by later that night. At Rouge Croix, the gravity of the situation became more apparent. Gough received instructions to dispatch a cadre of 6 officers and 6 warrant officers immediately to Dunkirk. This dozen would form the nucleus of the new Battalion should all not go to plan. The remainder of the Battalion fought on.

Deaths between 25th-27th May 1940

Cecil Howard Butler

Fusilier | 6975545

Fusilier Cecil Howard Butler of Brookeborough, Co. Fermanagh died on 27th May 1940 during the British Expeditionary Force's fighting retreat to Dunkirk.

John McCamley

Fusilier | 6978428

Fusilier John McCamley of Newry, Co. Down served in 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers in the BEF in France at the time his of death on 27th May 1940.

Reginald Hardy McConnell

Fusilier | 6978362

Fusilier Reginald Hardy McConnell of Shantallow, Co. Londonderry died between 25th and 27th May 1940 while serving in the Royal Irish Fusiliers in France.

Facing west along the Canal de la Lawe, they readied to once again engage the enemy north of Hazebrouck. Rommel had overwhelmed the Lancashire Fusiliers who replaced the Irish at Rouge Croix. Linking German Army Groups forced the Allies into an ever-shrinking pocket as they retreated towards the coast.

By 29th May 1940, Gough’s troops reached the coast. Around 600 officers and soldiers of 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers evacuated from Dunkirk. The fighting along the canals between St. Omer and La Bassée contributed greatly to the successful Dunkirk Evacuation. The Battalion received the ‘St. Omer to La Bassée’ battle honour for their actions between 23rd and 29th May 1940. Back in the United Kingdom, the Battalion would recover, retrain, and ready themselves for the next stage of the war.

Regimental deaths after Dunkirk

David Maxwell Phillips

Warrant Officer Class III | 6976134

Warrant Officer Class III David Maxwell Phillips died on 2nd June 1940 after returning to England with 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers from Dunkirk.

Michael Queally

Sergeant | 7110997

Sergeant Michael Queally was the husband of Mary Kathleen Queally of Omagh, Co. Tyrone. He died on 28th May 1940 while serving in the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Following the return from Dunkirk, the Royal Irish Fusiliers’ Comfort Fund based in Armagh, Co. Armagh undertook much work to raise morale within the Regiment. Sport, as always, played a role in boosting spirits and fitness and on 30th July 1940, the following letter from Delmege Trimble of the Royal Irish Fusiliers’ Comfort Fund appeared in the Belfast Telegraph.

Sir,

The Irish Fusiliers who were in France, like all other units, lost all its property in the retirement on Dunkirk, as all transport was required for food, munitions and wounded.

Amongst this property was 120 pairs of football boots and over a couple of dozen footballs. An SOS comes to me for these and I have sent what I could, but I am short ten footballs and many boots, and as the Battalion is now divided (in different posts) in England, each platoon should have at least one ball as the game helps to keep the men fit.

It occurs to me that soccer clubs may have spare balls and boots which they could donate the Battalion which has so many Belfast and Ulster men in its ranks. Any sent me will be gratefully received and carriage paid.

1940 Campaign Awards

The following 11 members of 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers received Military Honours for their part in the action of May 1940 in France.

Last NameFirst Name(s)RankBattalionDecoration
GoughGuy FrancisMajor (Temporary Lieutenant Colonel)1st Battalion Royal Irish FusiliersDistinguished Service Order
MurphyPeter CasellaLieutenant (Acting Captain)1st Battalion Royal Irish FusiliersMilitary Cross
Coldwell-HorsfallJohn HenryLieutenant (Temporary Captain)1st Battalion Royal Irish FusiliersMilitary Cross
MartinGeorge HerbertSecond Lieutenant1st Battalion Royal Irish FusiliersMilitary Cross
O'FarrellCharles Plunkett John DuncanSecond Lieutenant1st Battalion Royal Irish FusiliersMilitary Cross
JohnsonMaurice GordonSecond Lieutenant1st Battalion Royal Irish FusiliersMilitary Cross
GoodWilliam Christopher FinbarCompany Sergeant Major1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (6282691)Distinguished Conduct Medal
GrayAlbertPlatoon Sergeant Major1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (6975201)Distinguished Conduct Medal
GraineyThomasFusilier1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (69753565)Military Medal
HannaSamuelFusilier1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (6976459)Military Medal
JacksonJamesFusilier1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (6975377)Military Medal