Back in October, the WW2 Nation Team hit the road again as we headed out to the continent to explore a few of the sites in Belgium and France connected with Hitler’s Blitzkrieg campaign in the West during the summer of 1940 as we looked to learn more about this turbulent period.
It started with a hellishly long drive from Warwickshire down to the Eurotunnel in Folkestonne. Due to Foster arriving late (as normal) coupled with heavy traffic we missed our intended train and had to catch the next one across the Channel. Despite this though our spirits could not have been higher as our tyres touched down on French soil and our journey of exploration truly began.
Following a midnight stop at MacDonalds in Escequelbec (hard to imagine as we sat their eating that 70+ years ago this precise area saw bitter rearguard fighting by elements of the BEF and French forces), we eventually reached our hotel on the outskirts of Tournai in the early hours of the morning.
The first of our seven day tour saw us heading 200 kms eastwards to Fort Eben-Emael near Maastricht and the scene of one of the war’s most audacious commando style operations which kickstarted Case Yellow – Germany’s invasion in the West during the summer of 1940.
As a kind of surprise to Joe and Alex, and as a way to break up another long drive again so soon, we stopped off on route at a small bridge over the River Dyle near the villages of La Tombe and Gastuche. This was so we could pay our respects to the men of the Durham Light Infantry, for it was here on the 15th-16th May 1940 that one of the first Victoria Crosses of the campaign was to be awarded for the actions of 2nd Lt Richard ‘Dick’ Annand of the 2nd Battalion DLI.
He and his men had dug in along the winding banks of the River Dyle as part of the planned attempt to try and halt the growing tide of the German advance across Belgium.
2nd Lt Richard Wallace Annand’s official War Office VC Citation in The London Gazette – Friday 23rd August 1940:
“For most conspicuous gallantry on the 15th-16th May 1940, when the platoon under his command was on the south side of the River Dyle, astride a blown bridge. During the night a strong attack was beaten off, but about 11 a.m. the enemy again launched a violent attack and pushed forward a bridging party into the sunken bottom of the river.
Second Lieutenant Annand attacked this party, but when ammunition ran out he went forward himself over open ground, with total disregard for enemy mortar and machine-gun fire. Reaching the top of the bridge, he drove out the party below, inflicting over twenty casualties with hand grenades. Having been wounded he rejoined his platoon, had his wound dressed, and then carried on in command.
During the evening another attack was launched and again Second Lieutenant Annand went forward with hand grenades and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.
When the order to withdraw was received, he withdrew his platoon, but learning on the way back that his batman was wounded and had been left behind, he returned at once to the former position and brought him back in a wheelbarrow, before losing consciousness as the result of wounds.”
Source: The London Gazette
Dick Annand in fact risked the withering German fire and attacked their bridging parties with grenades on no less than three separate occasions. Sadly Private Joseph Lakeman Hunter from Sunderland – 2nd Lt Dick Annand’s batman – despite being rescued from his original position was lost in no-man’s land and eventually picked up by the advancing Germans. Unfortunately despite medical treatment the 25 year old succumbed to his wounds on Monday 17th June 1940 and is today buried at Maastricht General Cemetery.
The epitaph on Joseph’s headstone:
“HE DIED A HERO SO THAT OTHERS MIGHT LIVE AND BE FREE. UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN.”
Source: Pte. Joseph Hunter CWGC Entry
Richard was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions with the DLI at La Tombe defending the River Dyle. He was officially presented with his VC Medal on 3rd September 1940 by King George.
From the bridge over the River Dyle near Gastuche / La Tombe, we continued our journey eastwards towards Liege and Maastricht to visit our main destination for filming on that day – the Fortress of Eben Emael. Here we were to meet our expert guide Gerard for a private tour of this gigantic maze of tunnels and to discover the history behind Operation Granite, the first glider-borne assault of the war.
To Be Continued…
Day One: Hitler’s Invasion of the West – The Fall of Fort Eben-Emael (10-11 May, 1940)