Local men of the Ox and Bucks L.I. Regiment fought bravely at Dunkirk

With the publicity surrounding the recently released Dunkirk film it is important for us to remember members of our local regiment who fought and died or were wounded or captured defending the perimeter of Dunkirk so that many of our troops could manage to return to England in 1940.

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At the outbreak of WW2, the 4th Territorial Army Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment, based in Henley, formed part of the 400,000 strong British Expeditionary Force sent to assist the French in resisting a likely German invasion. The German army’s advance headed by heavy tanks was however very rapid and as it swept into Belgium and Holland it was inevitable the BEF would be encircled at the French coast.  The difficult decision was taken to evacuate as many men as possible to England. Prime Minister Churchill who had been much involved in the withdrawal from the fated expedition at Gallipoli in WW1 knew it was going to be an almost impossible task and estimated that probably only 30,000 would safely return to England.

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Admiral Ramsey with his headquarters at Dover rapidly organised a fleet of destroyers, minesweepers, ferries, and small craft to go across to France to rescue the troops gathering on the miles of shallow beaches surrounding Dunkirk.

 

Captain Michael Fleming who was adjutant of the 4th (TA) Ox and Bucks Battalion had raised a platoon of volunteers from his Nettlebed estate, Henley town and other local villages. He was ordered to defend the ancient hilltop town of Cassel 20 miles inland from Dunkirk to attempt to delay the German advance on the port.  His men, who were not battle trained or equipped with modern Bren guns, the essential infantry weapon, held out for three difficult days. Captain Fleming, although wounded, rode his motor bike around the town constantly encouraging his men to keep their spirits up. Having successfully held the German advance and with many men killed or wounded they were ordered to make for the coast “every man for himself”. Many did not make it including Captain Fleming who was captured and died of his wounds in hospital in Lille in the October.

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There is no doubt the delaying tactics of the Ox and Bucks and other regiments bravely defending the Dunkirk perimeter contributed greatly to the remarkable total of 338,000 men getting back to England.   For a more detailed account of the bravery of the men of the Ox and Bucks at Dunkirk go to www.nettlebed.org history section “Nettlebed’s Warriors of World War Two”.

 

Malcolm Lewis

Henley and Peppard Branch of The Royal British Legion.