2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles at Dunkirk

27th May 2019

In late May 1940, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles made a retreat to Dunkirk in Northern France as Nazi forces surrounded the British Expeditionary Force.

2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles fought throughout World War Two including Dunkirk and D-Day. They mobilised on 1st September 1939. A month later, the men were in France; first Cherbourg, then Parennes, Templemars, and on to Lezennes near Lille.

In 1939-1940, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles was part of the 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. They formed part of the British Expeditionary Force under Major General Bernard Montgomery. Their fearsome reputation earned the nickname “Monty’s Ironsides”.

It’s alright then – the Rifles are there.

Major General Bernard Montgomery, May 1940.

In early 1940, the weather on the Western Front was cold and wet. The Rifles job was preparing the border defences on the border between France and Belgium. This involved intensive digging in snow and frost. They had regular leave to the United Kingdom as all was “quiet on the Western Front”. This was the period known as the “Phoney War”.

At first, the regiment formed part of the rearguard. Their task was to defend the perimeter, provide cover, and buy time for those trapped on the beaches. At the last minute, their command overturned the order to fight to the last man and the Rifles had a chance to make it to the beach and wait.

Royal Ulster Rifles at Dunkirk 1940

Imperial War Museum Photo: HU 1135 (Part of the Major H E N Bredin Collection). War-weary officers of the Royal Ulster Rifles awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes near Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo in May 1940. The RUR were part of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe. Photo used under Fair Dealing.

10th May 1940

Eight months into the “Phoney War”, on 10th May 1940, Germany invaded Holland and Belgium. The British Expeditionary Force invoked Plan D leaving the defences behind and advancing into Belgium. 3rd Infantry Division took up position on the River Dyle. Under command of newly-promoted Lieutenant Colonel Knox, the Royal Ulster Rifles deployed to the city of Louvain. They covered a wide front of around 2,200 yards, manning approaches to the city.

14th May 1940

On the way to Louvain, the battalion heard many rumours and false reports. One such report stated the enemy was using chlorine gas. Most of the battalion arrived in the town wearing respirators. The smell hanging in the air, in fact came from an electric battery factory destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing.

The Rifles dug in, laid mines and waited. The first sight of the enemy was a motorcycle unit. The Rifles took it out with a burst of Bren gun fire. The first Royal Ulster Rifles shots of World War Two had been fired. By nightfall, the battalion engaged all along the railway line of Louvain. They fought like experienced veterans for five days holding the town in the face of artillery and mortar fire.

Royal Ulster Rifles at Dunkirk 1940

Imperial War Museum Photo: HU 1133 (Part of the Major H E N Bredin Collection). Men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles dug in near Furnes, looking towards the German lines during Operation Dynamo in May 1940. The RUR were part of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe. Photo used under Fair Dealing.

17th May 1940

Enemy troops penetrated the line close to the railway station. The Rifles fought back ensuring the station was shared rather than possessed by the enemy. Rival troops occupied opposing platforms and the Rifles did not yield any ground.

By then, German troops had smashed through the French line between Maubeuge and Sedan. The Royal Ulster Rifles joined the withdrawal and retreat. Moving east through Brussels, the battalion battled against the enemy and against battle fatigue. They would go on to commandeer civilian vehicles to aid the retreat including a bright red 20-ton lorry.

20th May 1940

The entire British Expeditionary Force was in trouble as the German armies approached from the south. They had reached the sea at Abbeville taking Channel ports as they moved in on the BEF. By now, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles were on the line of the Escaut river.

22nd May 1940

The battalion made it to Tourcoing near the border between France and Belgium. They enjoyed a 5 day rest, catching up on sleep, checking supplies, and tending to personnel. By this stage of the retreat, it was accepted that men would help themselves to milk and eggs from farms, and other stock from abandoned NAAFI stores.

To date, ten men of the battalion had died. Eight men from the Rifles lie in a French cemetery near Dunkirk. At Tourcoing, Montgomery presented awards for valour but in reality, the battle for France was all but over. Fifty miles from the sea, many were predicting re-embarkation.

Ships at Dunkirk

Imperial War Museum Photo: C 1720 (Part of the Air Ministry Second World War Official Collection). British ships arrive off the beaches at Dunkirk around 3rd June 1940. Smoke billows in the air from burning oil storage tanks. Copyright Royal Air Force Official Photographer.

27th May 1940

The King of Belgium sought terms of armistice and the Belgian army stood down. The northern side of Allied defences had gone. 3rd Infantry Division moved north by night. Travelling in darkness, they came close to the battle lines of 5th Division. By the following morning, they were north of Ypres, still defending the eastern flank.

28th May 1940

The Royal Ulster Rifles continued to beat off enemy attacks. The British Expeditionary Force destroyed vehicles, stores, clothing, and documents as they retreated. The streets of coastal towns backed up with military vehicles and retreating troops as the enemy continued to advance.

29th May 1940 - 30th May 1940

Royal Ulster Rifles at Dunkirk

Imperial War Museum Photo: HU 1137 (Part of the Major H E N Bredin Collection). Men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo in May 1940. The RUR were part of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe. Photo used under Fair Dealing.

31st May 1940

The order for final withdrawal came forth and the Rifles marched the eleven miles from La Panne to Dunkirk as a unit. Unbeaten by the enemy, having defended valiantly, they embarked destroyers at the Mole.

The Royal Ulster Rifles were among the last soldiers to leave Dunkirk under fire and Luftwaffe bombardment. The rescue after the exhausting march and battle was not the end for the men at Dunkirk. There was still a dangerous sea journey back to England.

On that journey, Humphrey Edgar Nicholson Bredin fell exhausted on a small rescue ship. To his surprise, he found a steward onboard in white uniform serving the men. The steward asked if he could bring the commander anything. Bredin asked in hope if he could have a beer. The steward informed him that ship policy dictated alcohol could only be served when more than three miles out.

That convinced me we would win the war!

Humphrey Edgar Nicholson Bredin

Exhausted but undefeated, they arrived back in Dover. More than 340,000 men returned from the beaches of Dunkirk between 28th May and 4th June 1940.

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