British withdrawal accelerates as Churchill speaks

German tanks, 1940
German armour advancing into Belgium

The situation in France was unravelling fast. The Germans had now secured their breakthrough in the gap they had forced north of the Maginot Line. The great bulk of the French Army was still confined to these great fortresses and there was neither the means, nor seemingly the will, to bring them into the battle. A plan was drawn up to cut off the German Panzer thrust by the French driving north and the British driving south at the base of the German advance. It was the logical thing to do but it never materialised.

The British Cabinet was now informed that the British Army might have to be evacuated from the north French coast in order to save them – it was just over a week since they had gone forward into Belgium so confidently.

At home Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation, his address made the seriousness of the situation abundantly clear. He acknowledged that the Germans Panzers “have penetrated deeply and spread alarm and confusion in their track” but he still held out the hope that the front could be stabilised:

We may look with confidence to the stabilization of the Front in France, and to the general engagement of the masses, which will enable the qualities of the French and British soldiers to be matched squarely against those of their adversaries. For myself, I have invincible confidence in the French Army and its leaders.

Only a very small part of that splendid Army has yet been heavily engaged; and only a very small part of France has yet been invaded. There is a good evidence to show that practically the whole of the specialized and mechanized forces of the enemy have been already thrown into the battle; and we know that very heavy losses have been inflicted upon them.

No officer or man, no brigade or division, which grapples at close quarters with the enemy, wherever encountered, can fail to make a worthy contribution to the general result. The Armies must cast away the idea of resisting behind concrete lines or natural obstacles, and must realize that mastery can only be regained by furious and unrelenting assault. And this spirit must not only animate the High Command, but must inspire every fighting man.

He knew that his main task was to unite and inspire the British people for the long fight ahead:

We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all – to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be. This is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain.

It is also beyond doubt the most sublime. Side by side, unaided except by their kith and kin in the great Dominions and by the wide empires which rest beneath their shield – side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.

Behind them – behind us- behind the Armies and Fleets of Britain and France – gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians – upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.

Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

For the full speech see The Churchill Centre.

Captain R. Leah describes the practical difficulties faced by the British Expeditionary Force units as they seek to withdraw:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Sunday 19th May.

Anxious to get away before light, but no sign of A.F.V’s till about 3 a.m. and were just moving out of Lessines as dawn was breaking. “B” Coy were rear guard and last away. Heavy mortar shelling this morning. Apparently insufficient transport for everybody. Transport took some on, part of the way, then came back and lifted others, and so on. We marched until about 10 a.m. Everybody extraordinarily tired. Road crowded – at least 2 waits moving back on our road. Our Tpt not too well organized, drivers did not know their destination nor did I. Saw Michael Kemp when entering Tournai. R.A.S.C. finally dumped us in Tournai. Eventually got hold of Rutterford, P.S.M., who took me to Bn area, borrowed some tpt and went back and fetched company.

Battalion area large wooded grounds with field in centre. Food cooked and much appreciated. A/Q.M.S. Miller, ? and Mackenzie were doing incredibly well and always had food waiting for us when possible which made all the difference. Once again allotted billets, very fine ones, just moving in when ordered to form perimeter camp in Park. This is continually happening so enemy tanks must be getting through. Had Bn. officer’s mess just opposite gates of grounds, and sat down this evening to good meal.

Took C.O.’s steel helmet by mistake which caused great deal of consternation. Orders to move again early tomorrow morning. Mortar shelling again later at night. L/c Martin hit, but not badly but out of action.

12 miles marching, Coy and self.

[Entry No.10, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

British troops move into Belgium, May 1940: British troops with the wreckage of a Heinkel bomber shot down near Tournai.
British troops move into Belgium, May 1940: British troops with the wreckage of a Heinkel bomber shot down near Tournai.
Men of the 4th Border Regiment travel in the back of a lorry, May 1940.
Men of the 4th Border Regiment travel in the back of a lorry, May 1940.