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15 October 2014
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Rearguard at Dunkirkicon for Recommended story

by Paul Hunt

Contributed by 
Paul Hunt
People in story: 
Harry Munn
Location of story: 
Cassell, Belgium
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2349768
Contributed on: 
26 February 2004

The story of anti-tank gunner Harry Munn of 209/53 A/T Regiment Royal Artillery:

On the night of the 16th May the Battery moved up to Waterloo near the scene of the 1815 battle. Next day a flight of Stukka bombers attacked our positions. Yorky Holme’s gun crew C4 consisted of Phil Plevey, Bert Tanner, George Bradley who were all killed, Ron Bingham and Yorky had multiple shrapnel wounds. Also present when the attack came was Russ Heseford the Sergeant of C2 gun crew who was also killed outright. Yorky and Ron Bingham were eventually evacuated to England and later in the war Ron was killed while serving as an officer in the R.A.F. air crews. Major Cartland, Mr Hutton-Squire, Bdr. Charlie Rennie, Dan R Len Griffiths and Driver George helped to bury our dead. In the tradition of the Regiment they were wrapped in white sheets. Years later I visited a little churchyard at St Pieter Liews just off the Brussels motorway where these of our casualties are now buried. The three Yeomanry graves are in the front row centre of a much greater number of Belgian soldiers graves. One bears the name and number of Phil Plevey, the other two bear the inscription "Unknown Soldier of the Worcestershire Yeomanry".

That night Mr Hutton- Squire withdrew C Troops remaining 3 guns from their positions in the middle of the night. As the troop moved off C1 went into a ditch and extricated itself with great difficulty damaging the near side gun wheel in the process. Coming through the town of Tournai the damaged wheel of C1 gun came off. Now all the vehicles carried a spare gun wheel but none of them fitted the gun, this had been a well known fact but no action was taken to put it right. George Prosser, Frank Barber and myself found some very large nails in a nearby deserted café and managed drive them through the broken rivets and this enabled us to get the gun back into France. Mr Hutton-Squire eventually found a workshop unit who turned the spare wheel on a lathe until it fitted in a fashion. After some days trying to establish contact with the Regiment we ended up at the Headquarters of what I believe was the 2nd Division. After three days Mr Hutton-Squire came to the gun site and instructed Harry "Smiler" Clark, the driver of the C1 gun crew, and myself to get some sleep. Smiler was a Canadian who had worked in Kidderminster before the war and joined the T.A in 1938. He was later to make a dramatic escape from a P.O.W. camp in Poland and was awarded the D.C.M. It was now the policy to move at night as the German Luftwaffe had complete command of the skies, the driver and No 1 had to stay awake but the gun crew could snatch some fitful sleep in the back of the truck.

Just before dusk the convoy started to form up. However while waiting to move off Lt.Col. Medley, Regimental Commander, and Major Cartland came walking down the road. I called the detachment to attention and Major Cartland said "I reported you missing some days ago". I replied that we were all in the convoy and that Mr Hutton-Squire was further down.

Once again Major Cartland had his battery all together and after one day holding a position on the Belgian border he led us on to Cassel. Steep hills led in and out of the town and it was an ideal place to defend. Brigadier Somerset who commanded the Brigade put Major Cartland in charge of the anti-tank defences of the town and A.B.C Troops, 11 guns in all, were dug in around the town. The rest of the Regiment were formed into a flying column under the command of Col. Medley and sent to deal with "a few tanks" that had broken through our lines. One Troop of 211 Battery was left at Cassel to assist the 209 in the defence of the town. B Troop was sent from Cassel under the command of Lieut. Freeker to escort a company of the Welsh Guards. We heard later that the Welsh Guards were the bodyguard of the GIC of the B.E.F. Major General Gort VC. C Troop took over the position vacated by B Troop and as we moved in we came under heavy mortar fire from the Germans down on the plain below. We quickly put our gun into the shallow gun pit used by the 2pdr which and took cover in two slit trenches. Our trench held the gun crew which consisted of Frank Barber, Bill Vaux and myself. The second trench contained the Bren gun manned by H.A. "Tiny" James and the Boyes rifle manned by W. Anthony. Still under heavy mortar fire we stood looking out over the plain below and shortly afterwards we could see 24 tanks in line abreast coming towards our lines. They were too far away to be identified. Frank said "Do you think they are ours?" and I replied "I think it very bloody doubtful". As the tanks got nearer we could clearly see the Swastika flags on the front of each tank. Mr Hutton-Squire came to the position with Major Cartland saying to me "Tanks in your area Bombadier". I replied "I see them sir" and from then on they did not interfere with our handling of the situation.

Meanwhile the German tanks had reached a small wood at the base of the ridge and halted there out of sight of our position. Directly below us was a gap in the wood where we expected the attack to come from and sure enough three tanks came through the gap about 600 yds from the gun site. I gave the order "Take post" and we manned the 2pdr. As the No 1 I gave the orders using the open sights on the gun which enabled the No 3 layer Frank Barber to pick up and follow the tank with his telescopic sight. The loader No 2 Bill Vaux had loaded the gun and the next order was "Fire!". Now the 2pdr shell had a tracer base and this enabled you to see where it went. Our first shot went straight and true for its target but at almost the point of impact the tank dipped into a small trough in the ground and the shell passed in front of the turret. From our point of view this could not have been worse. The tracer base enabled the German tank commander to know he was under attack and from what direction. His gun turret turned in our direction and he opened fire missing us by some fifty yards short of our position. Our next shot hit the tank just below the turret and failed to penetrate the armour but went up into the air like a rocket. We continued our duel with the tank. We fired, they moved, halted and fired back. After some 15 shells had been fired Bill Vaux the loader who could not see what was going on but knew from the lack of movement of the gun that we were still engaging the original target enquired "When are you going to hit the bloody thing?". By now the tank was less than 100 yds from our position and we still could not penetrate its armour. The only thing I could think of was that the wheels that propelled the tank tracks were unprotected and so I shouted to Frank "Hit the bastard in the tracks, Frank". The gun muzzle dipped slightly and just as the tank moved we fired hitting the track propulsion wheels and the tank halted abruptly swinging to one side. Still full of fight they turned their gun in our direction and fired again hitting the bank in front of the gun. Our next shell must have disabled the turret as they opened the escape hatch and ran for their lives back towards their lines. George Prosser our Troop Sergeant had laid down by the gun taking pot shots with his rifle and hit the last German to leave the tank. The other two tanks that came through were on the right and left of our position. I decided to engage the one on the left, it was a perfect target silhouetted against a small hillock. I gave the necessary commands - direction - range - and a zero lead fire. Frank pressed the firing pedal and this time the shell penetrated the armour, exploded inside the tank and blew it into small pieces as its own ammunition went up. There were no survivors. I relaid the gun on the third tank, gave the order "Fire!". Frank followed the tank traversing left and right as it searched for our position and as it paused for a second he fired, completely destroying this one as we had the previous one.

No more tanks were in our immediate vicinity and as heavy mortar fire was making our position very uncomfortable we were about to return to our slit trenches when a Sergeant from the 2nd Gloucesters ran over to our gun pit. He pointed to a small empty cottage about 300yds to our left and told us another tank was holed up behind it. We opened fire on the cottage and the whole place went up in flames. We waited but no tank emerged. Later on our long march into captivity I met this Sergeant again and he told me that the tank was burnt out at the back of the cottage as a result of our attack.

Major Cartland who together with Mr Hutton-Squire and Mr D Woodward had observed this action from the very exposed position at the rear of the gun pit, came to me with new orders. However the damaged wheel proved difficult and it took both Frank and myself to get in on the axle leaving the whole crew and vehicle out in the open. Next day I returned to the gun pit which had been heavily mortared shortly after we left. Bill Vaux who was with me counted the empty shell cases, twenty-one in all. He considered it was too many for the net result of only, at that time, three confirmed tanks destroyed. He buried 17 empty shell cases in the slit trench. He then invited over the next few days all he could find to come and see our three tanks bagged with four shots!

A message came that tanks were attempting to break through a road block on the road we were now on. As an attack was imminent it was decided we would fire the gun on its wheels. This again was something we knew the drill for but had never done or seen done. It called for a fourth man in the crew whose job was to hold the gun spike used for lifting in the trail eye and stop the gun turning over on recoil. "Tiny" James the biggest man in our crew was detailed for the job and we went to action stations prepared to fire. We were more worried about what would happen with the gun after we fired than the threat of the approaching tank. Major Cartland moved a French 75 field gun alongside us manned by a crew of French officers. Mr Hutton-Squire as always with complete disregard for his own safety had gone down towards the road block to see what was happening. Tension mounted and then an anti-climax as round the corner from the direction the tanks were expected came C Troop’s Dan R Len Griffiths on his motor bike. Now by this time Len was one of the few Dan R’s still riding his bike and as always he was full of the joys of spring. "Hello you shower of so and so’s" he greeted us and produced packets of cigarettes from his saddlebags for us all. About to throw a couple of packets to the Bren gunner he noticed for the first time that is was the Major. Throwing a very smart salute he apologised and saying that he knew the Major was a non-smoker like himself he gave him a large handful of 2oz bars of Cadbury’s chocolate. Major Cartland instructed him to go to his H.Q. and take the B.S.M. and his staff to Regimental H.Q. This was the last we saw of him until after the war. He told me that after Dunkirk when the roll of the Regiment was called he was the only man to parade when C Troop was called. He was decorated with the M.M. for his exploits on the road back to Dunkirk. Later in the war after service in the Middle East he went to Burma. He was again decorated this time with the D.C.M. and although badly wounded survived the war. Len Griffiths was as far as I know the most decorated O.R. in the Worcestershire Yeomanry.

Mr Woodward’s A Troop had done sterling work during the attack in positions adjoining the left flank of C Troop, Bdr "Cag" Davies stopping two tanks at point- blank range, both tanks crews killed outright. About this time the French 75 did a shoot against tanks down in the valley. Where the gunners were I do not know but both times the gun was manned it was by the French Colonel and his officers and W.O. The French Colonel observed the shoot through his binoculars and announced that they had hit and destroyed six tanks. One 2pdr gun operating in the area where C1 had been that morning and operated by its one remaining gunner knocked out five tanks. Apparently a sniper of the fifth column hiding in the town had picked off the gun crew one by one. The last survivor of the gun crew saw the tanks approaching along a sunken road. He bravely got into the layers seat, hit the first tank, turned his gun on the last tank in the line disabling it and blocked the other tanks in a position where they could not move. He then destroyed the three other tanks which were completely trapped. I regret I do not know his name but believe he was from the 13th A/T Regt. R.A. All in all some 40-plus German tanks were destroyed on that Sunday afternoon.

During the next few days we observed the activity down on the plain below us. The German troops were active but too far away for us to engage. At night we could see burning towns at our rear. They were Calais and Dunkirk. What we did not know was that we were nearly surrounded and cut off from the rest of the B.E.F. On the evening of the 29th May orders were given for the destruction of our guns and vehicles and with heavy hearts we went to Major Cartland’s H.Q. Major Cartland made a speech in which he explained our position and said the Brigade would leave Cassel on foot and attempt to reach our lines. No mention was made that the evacuation was already taking place at Dunkirk. He also said it was an "every man for himself" situation and any man who wished to make his own way was free to do so. All elected to follow the Major and armed with rifles, Brens and Mills bombs we set off through the burning town of Cassel. Leading the march and bringing up the rear were remnants of the Brigade’s two infantry regiments - The Glosters and The Ox and Bucks L.I., with R.A. and R.E. personnel in the centre of the column.

At dawn we found ourselves under heavy fire from infantry and tanks. Very heavy casualties were inflicted on our battery and to save further losses Major Cartland gave the order to surrender. At this point heavy firing was going on and Major Cartland was killed. Mr Hutton-Squire, Tommy Bunn who was the Major’s driver and myself were some distance from the rest of the battery. Mr Hutton-Squire said that he was not going to become a prisoner and shouting "Follow me Bombadier" stormed out of the ditch we were in firing a Bren gun at a nearby tank and was killed by the answering burst of fire. Tommy Bunn and myself reached a ditch on the far side of the field and came under heavy fire from the same tank. We knew we would not be taken prisoner by this tank crew and crawled along the ditch towards a gate into the next field. We jumped from the ditch and ran through the gateway right into the middle of a German patrol who already had several of our battery prisoner. "Halt!" shouted their N.C.O. and Tommy and I went into the bag.

Bdr. H.T. "Wally" MUNN
(Late of Finchfield, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, England)

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Message 1 - Rearguard at Dunkirk

Posted on: 17 March 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Paul

This is a superb contribution and I look forward to reading the sequel.

Kind regards,

Peter

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