Late on the 20th May 1940 the advance German units reached the French coast at Noyelles. The French Army was cut in two, with the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force cut off in Belgium and north west France with their backs to the English Channel. In London there was a growing realisation that a full scale evacuation of the BEF was needed.
The encirclement was very large and the British forces were not yet in any danger of being attacked from the rear. Nevertheless the German forces pursuing them in Belgium maintained their pressure. Captain Leah describes the confusion they encountered while seeking to withdraw under shell fire:
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Monday 20th May
Left Tournai after midnight this morning en route for Taintignies. Quite a long march before breakfast. Must have arrived about 8.30 or 9 am. Coys allotted area in and around wood again. Breakfast right away and then company slept in wood. Coy Comdrs recce in front of St. Maur where the WKS were. Great difficulty in getting down from St. Maur to their Bn H.Q. Road heavily shelled.
C.O. , Maurice, Reech and self had to crawl along ditch most of the way. One gunner killed and one wounded just in front of me. Arrived there Bn H.Q. also under heavy shelling, difficult to get down to forward areas. Reech and I resorted to mess and helped ourselves to white wine, ration biscuits and bully then started off across country back to C.O’s car. C.O. and Maurice then caught us up.
Lots of rumours of tanks again. On arrival back forced another perimeter of village and blocked all roads. Sudden move again this evening. Marched to Ere about seven miles, Waited there several hours, supposed to be taking over line from another unit… All slept on the side of road. Finally received orders to return Taintignies. While waiting at the roadside to Ere about 10.30 p.m. Pte Hutchinson had his arm run over and broken by a truck.
Marching: 20 miles – Coy & Self. 185 since last Monday.
Entry No.11, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]
See TNA WO 217/15
Newsreel footage of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium assisting bombed residents and refugees, released 20th May 1940: