Categories 1940

Belgian refugees clog the roads

Germans troops take Belgium troops prisoner at bridge
German troops take 30 prisoners from the bunker under the south side of the Veldwezelt bridge over the Albert Canal :11th May 1940 10am

German Panzers and Belgium refugees near the Albert Canal, 11th May 1940

A Belgian bridge blown up to delay the German advance.
A Belgian bridge blown up to delay the German advance.

Only a few British army units were on the French-German border. The 1st Battalion, The Black Watch were on the front line facing the Germans when they experienced an early probing attack:

Patrol May 10th / 11th by 2/Lieut A.Orr Ewing.

I left our own wire near F.9 in the GROSSENWALD at 2300 hrs and made my way to the S.E. corner of the LOHWALD. I lay up in the trees on the right hand side. About 0150 hrs I heard someone moveng in the S.E. corner of the wood and about 10 minutes later, more movement. I lay quiet for 10 minutes and then decided to investigate. I left 4 men with 2 automatic guns in the trees to cover me and also to shoot anyone trying to leave the corner of the wood. With the remaining men I moved forward between the stream and the wood.

About 40 yds away from me I saw 3 men running from the wood towards the stream, I opened fire with my Birretta and two men dropped. Immediately heavy firing from at least 4 Tommy guns opened up on my FLASH. My patrol and I all dropped flat and continued to fire and throw grenades. About 8 to 10 men then left the wood and opened fire. More men from the wood also fired on us. One man advanced towards us but was severely hit in the stomach, At least two more were hit by grenades as we heard them screaming. The enemy threw stick grenades, one landing near my bearer and me cutting us both and temporarily blinding me with, blood owing to a cut above the eye. Owing to the fact that our ammunition was running low and their superior numbers we withdrew about 60 yds under covering fire from the 4 men we had left behind. The enemy then withdrew and we heard them talking on the other side of the stream. As our time to return was nearly due we made our way back to our own wire.

At ‘Stand to’ we searched the LOHWALD through and found a regular run on the S.E. side, It is fairly certain that the enemy took their wounded with then as we found none. I think that enemy were massing in the S.E. comer of the LOHWALD to making an assault on one of our posts but they were surprised and did not the carry out original intentions.

See WO 167/710

The major part of the British Expeditionary Force was now seeking to move forward into Belgium. They faced a largely unanticipated problem;

The stream of refugees which had begun to flow thinly on 10th May had by the 11th swelled into a turgid flood.

During that day all roads leading westwards became choked with a slowly moving mass of traffic which seemed to grow more dense every hour. High farm wagons drawn by teams of great Flemish horses, their harness gay with brass and ribbons, creaked along laden with a pathetic burden of personal possessions and small children still clinging to the toys that they had been playing with when panic struck their homes.

Motors crammed with suitcases and strange, shapeless bundles, and almost invariably topped by a canopy of striped mattresses tied on with scraps of rope, chugged slowly along with frequent checks and halts. Scores of cyclists, their cycles hung from handle-bars to mudguard with packages, wound their way along wearily pushing their overloaded machines in front of them. Aged peasants trudged on foot, silent, uncomplaining, perhaps uncomprehending.

Over all the sweating, toiling column brooded an atmosphere of latent terror-a terror rooted in history, nourished by remembrance of that other exodus that so short a time ago had been overtaken by murder, rape and torture. Here and there in the shifting pattern of the column a thin thread of Belgian soldiery showed plain. . . moving westwards. To the British soldier, scion of an island race inviolate for a thousand years, it was a strange and moving spectacle.

All that night and next day, the 12th, the endless stream flowed on, while overhead the enemy’s bombers droned over Louvain and its neighbouring villages.

Roger Evans: The Fifth Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards

Meanwhile the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders had marched forward into Belgium:

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

Saturday 11th May

Passed through Lesdain and Velvain by night and St Mans at daybreak. Arrived billeting area ? Mathiere near Tournai about 8.30 a.m. Coy had breakfast and slept. Peter Grant and self found very hospitable Belgium family who gave us lunch and supper. We then slept off and on most of the day. This evening we got orders for tomorrow’s move from “Reech” Maurice having gone on. Nothing very exciting today. A certain amount of air bombing, but not in our area. Must have marched about 20 miles last night. 20 miles marching.

[Entry No. 2, for the first entry see ’10th May 1940′]]

See TNA WO 217/15