Heroes of the Dunkirk escape ‘fought like tigers’

French locals tending graves
French locals tending graves

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the remarkable evacuation of the British and French armies from the beaches of Dunkirk, when a flotilla of ships, large and small, snatched the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force from under the noses of the Germans.

This though is the story of the men of the rearguard, who heroically held the perimeter, permitting their comrades in arms to make good their escape. One such unit was the pride of the British Infantry, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots, which contained many local men in its ranks. For most of the early part of May, 1940 the Royal Scots withdrew westwards through Belgium, engaging in sporadic fighting with the advancing Germans. In the middle of May, the Royals were ordered to dig in at the town of Wavre. News of heavy defeats for the Belgian Army began to filter through and on May 12 exhausted troops of the Belgian 4th and 7th Army poured through the town, leaving the Scots and a few French Colonial troops to defend the town from attack. This duly arrived the following day when, after short-lived but heavy fighting, the Germans were “fairly easily repulsed”.

The following day, however, it became evident that the French Army was collapsing and that the Royal Scots were in real danger of being surrounded, much of their heavy equipment was destroyed and the next few days were spent retiring, occasionally stopping to repulse German advance units, until the town of Calonne on the River Escaut was reached.

On May 20, the Royal Scots made their way down to the river where, under shellfire and mortaring, they took over from the 7th and 8th Royal Warwicks. Soon, it became evident the Germans were attacking in force.

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