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.
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.
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.
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.
Sergeant • 7006851
Sergeant Thomas Leslie of Belfast, Co. Antrim died on 28th May 1940 as the Royal Ulster Rifles fought in Belgium with the British Expeditionary Force.
Rifleman • 7013035
Rifleman George McNeill died on 28th May 1940 while serving with 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles as part of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium.
Robert James Moffatt
Rifleman • 7013481
Rifleman Robert James Moffatt of Belfast, Co. Antrim died on 28th May 1940 while serving with the Royal Ulster Rifles during the BEF retreat to Dunkirk.
John Patrick O'Halloran
Corporal • 7011733
Corporal John Patrick O'Halloran from Belfast, Co. Antrim died between 28th May 1940 and 2nd June 1940 fighting in the BEF retreat to Dunkirk in France.
Rifleman • 7011328
Rifleman Lalor Smith from Bessbrook, Co. Armagh served in the Royal Ulster Rifles at the time of his death during Operation Dynamo on 28th May 1940.
Patrick Joseph Treanor
Rifleman • 7014151
Rifleman Patrick Joseph Treanor of Newry, Co. Down died on 28th May 1940 as the Royal Ulster Rifles held the rear guard of the British Expeditionary Force.