BEF rearguard action at De Moeren/Bulskamp (May 29th till May 31st 1940)

Discussion in '1940' started by Christian Luyckx, Apr 28, 2023.

  1. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    I recently received the copy of Gun Buster’s (a.k.a. Captain R.C. Austin, RA) ‘Return via Dunkirk’ I had ordered a couple of weeks ago (postage between Britain and the continent can sometimes take a while) and just finished reading it. Evidently, the last part, where the combats around Bulskamp are related, was read with particular attention.

    First and foremost, I must say I loved reading this book. Vividly written, often deeply moving, sparkling with realism yet not over-dramatized. Better than most other books I’ve read on the subject so far, it provides a deeper insight in the mindset and psychology of the people who endured those dramatic days. Also, having recently been scouting the whole Bulskamp area, I could perfectly situate myself in every account described in the book due to the author’s precise description of the Bulskamp surroundings (the same also applies for other locations in Belgium and France described in the book which I happen to be familiar with). In short: every details fits like a glove. Though academic scholars may argue about this, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that this book is historically accurate.

    I reviewed the information I posted so far and reassessed their content in light of on the inputs provided by the author. As such, some prior presumptions (post dated May 5th) need to be corrected:

    1) It would seem my assumption that Captain Austin did not climb to the utter top of the St. Charles windmill was wrong. He actually did! (Ref.: chapter XV ‘Windmill versus Church’) “I drove over to the windmill and climbed to the top. The large attic-like room was full of the windmill’s machinery, ponderous wooden cog-wheels of colossal size, with a great spindle striking down through the middle of them to the bottom of the mill. These great wheels would start to revolve and creak when the outside vanes where set in motion by the wind. But now they had been locked. Wheels, spindle, and wooden walls were thickly covered with black grease, and the smell was appropriate.”​

    Nowadays, the windmill’s attic is off-limits to visitors. In the old days though, there used to be several small openings in the roof (to allow for some daylight when maintenance needed to be performed) that are no longer present. Presumable, it is from one of these holes, sitting on one of the beams, that Captain Austin observed the German positions in Bulskamp.

    St. Charles windmill.jpg

    2) I surmised earlier that British infantry had entrenched behind the Ringsloot. Apparently, only the 92/Field Regiment, RA did. Their batteries were positioned in the direct vicinity of the mill. The Durhams seem to have been entrenched further ahead, behind the Bergues-Furnes canal.​

    Kind Regards,
    Last edited: May 13, 2023
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  2. John West

    John West Active Member

    Excellent. Will add to my list for a visit next Flanders trip. John
  3. LondonNik

    LondonNik Senior Member

    Excellent information Christian,

    Does the following photo of a wrecked British tank (from ebay, so I apologise for the poor resolution) show the St Charles windmill perhaps (I can't see it in a modern view of Bulskamp though)?

    The photo also shows the spire of a church - could that be Bulskamp (it seems to be a fair match)?

    The tank may have been a 'guard tank' somewhere around Bergues, which is some distance away, but I haven't been able to confirm that, and it also was at Kemmel.

    best regards,


    Attached Files:

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  4. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    Hallo Nik,

    It’s always tricky to attempt making an appraisal based only on what is visible on a single photo without additional information to support one’s assessment (e.g. ‘Who took the photo?’, ‘What was his division or regiment?’, ‘When was the photo taken?’, ‘Are inscriptions visible on the back of the photo?’, ‘Are specific markings visible that may provide a clue?’, ‘Is this photo part of a series?’ etc.)

    Anyway, this is what I initially can make out of your photo (tentative!):

    • The topography of the terrain and the white patches on the bottom left of the photo, quite probably sand, may suggest a location between the polders and the dunes. If so, we are looking for a spot which may be located in France or Belgium.
    • In my opinion, the windmill on the left background is not the St. Charles windmill. The general lay-out suggests to me a wooden construction.
    • The church on the background doesn’t help very much: each and every village in the region has its own church. The style and silhouettes of most of these look very much alike, especially from a distance. Identification is therefore only possible if specific features are visible which, in this instance is not the case.
    • The vehicle in the foreground seems to be a British Mathilda Mk I infantry tank. As far as I know, none of those saw action in the general vicinity of Bulskamp or De Moeren.

    My advice would be to focus on the tank: it probably belonged (confirmation needed) to the 4th or 7th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment (RTR). After the battle of Arras, those surviving withdrew in direction of Dunkirk (only two made it that far). If this premise is correct, you should look for a French polder village, probably nearby a main road leading towards Dunkirk, with a point-tipped church and a wooden windmill in the neighbourhood.

    If the resolution is high enough, it may perhaps pay off to try digitally enhance your photo IOT attempt to identify some additional clues. I should focus on the markings visible on the flank of the tank. Another option is to surf on the net: perhaps other pictures of that same tank were already posted. If so, the caption may provide a breakthrough.

    Voilà, I hope this helped. I'm sure other forum members will soon provide additional insights.

    Greetings form Belgium,
  5. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    I just came by an interesting account by Colonel C E Ryan, 12th Lancers.
    Account: 12th LANCERS, May 1940, Dunkirk, Colonel C E Ryan
    CAB 106/240

    “At BULSCAMP there was an inconspicuous bump in the ground which passed unnoticed by our infantry. It had no height to speak of but in the flat surroundings offered useful command over our bank of the canal. The enemy, quick to appreciate their advantage, got some machine guns up and cleared out men back from the canal bank to the circumference of a semi-circle of respectful radius from the bump. At another point their pioneers boldly began bridging operations at a place where they were exposed to fairly effective Bren gun fire. They suffered casualties but gallantly brought up more and more pioneers to replace them until the bridge was completed; the Bren gunners had their reward when the German infantry, after one attempt, would not face the crossing.”

    Unfortunately, no date is mentioned, but the canal in the account can only be the Bergues-Furnes canal. I assume (confirmation required) that the German pioneers belonged to Pionier-Bataillon 216 (attached to the 216. Infanterie Division).

    Providing it still exists, I shall attempt to identify the ‘inconspicuous bump’ in Bulskamp next time I’m in that neighbourhood.
    In the meantime, I would appreciate any inputs or insights. Perhaps the incidents referred to in this account are documented elsewhere (Durham Light Infantery War Diaries?).

    Enjoy a sunny weekend,
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  6. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

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  7. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    Hi David,

    Your input is consistent with the information provided by Andrew (post of Apr 30th). It also fits with Jerry Murland's book 'The Dunkirk Perimeter and Evacuation 1940'. All three DLI battalions had their temporary CP at St. Flora castle. I hope to visit the site, which is closed to the public, by the end of this month - fingers crossed.

    As to the Bulskamp cemetery, I paid my respects to the British graves during my last survey. I also took a couple of pictures but, at the time, thought it might perhaps be inappropriate to post them.

    Anyway, it would seem that much more happened at Bulskamp in May 1940 than I imagined when I initially started this tread.

    Thank you and Kind Regards,
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  8. ltdan

    ltdan Nietenzähler

    The same is true for my hometown when I started my research
    And I'm quite fascinated what dedicated local historians can still compile
  9. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    All British forces engaged around Bulskamp received orders for the final withdrawal to the beaches and embarkation, commencing at 0230 hours on 1 June 1940.

    I had always wondered how they successfully pulled this off so swiftly. Maneuvering such a large body of men and material in a pitch black night (I imagine observing a strictly enforced blackout), without arousing the enemy’s suspicion, on small paths in an area infamous for being a labyrinth of brooks, ditches and canals? It seemed to me a rather daunting proposition, especially so for the 92 Field Regiment, which effectively managed to extricate all its guns. Also, the window of opportunity they had was quite narrow: in that time of year the sun sets at about 0545: providing everybody was on hot standby, they had about 3 hours! After that, in the open, with no cover whatsoever, they would have been sitting ducks.

    Then it hit me! The road from Houtem to Adinkerke (the W. Cobergherstraat) intersects the whole area, parallel with the French border. After crossing the Bergues-Furnes canal, heading north, it intersects De Moeren, crossing all the waterways, in a perfectly straight line over more than 3 miles – impossible to get lost! Such a long, linear road was very uncommon at the time so I assumed it to be of recent, post-war construction. However, after consulting a 1938-old Michelin map of the region, I realized I was wrong.

    Route towards Adinkerke.jpg.png

    So, providing some planning, co-ordination and discipline, it could and has been done. Once on the Cobergherstraat, it’s single-file all the way North towards Adinkerke and the Dunkirk-Furnes canal. From there on, they would have turned west towards Ghyvelde and Bray-Dunes.

    Kind Regards,
  10. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    History sometimes has a way of repeating itself, often tainted in subtle paradox and glorious irony. :-P
    Though slightly off-topic, I couldn’t resist the temptation of sharing this perfect example with you.

    You may perhaps be aware that, shortly after the French Revolution, the British sent a strong military force to the continent under command of H.R.H. the Duke of York and Albany. His main objective was the capture of Dunkirk, as the port was strategically vital as a logistic hub in order to ensure further British operations on the continent. The British were aided in their endeavor by Hannoverian (German) forces commanded by Wilhelm von Freytag and Austrian troops commanded by Joseph Alvinczy von Berberek.

    The 20.000 men strong British-German-Austrian allied force was confronted by roughly 40.000 French revolutionary troops under command of general Jean Nicolas Houchard. It must be noted though that these French troops were, for the most part, inexperienced, drafted soldiers (issued from the so called ‘levée en masse’). Also, in order to protect Dunkirk, Les Moëres were flooded (sounds familiar?).

    Two battles were fought (story-line in a nutshell): the first took place between Bulskamp and Hondschoote on 6-8 September 1793, the second near Wattignies on 15-16 October. At Hondschoote, Houchard saved the day by ordering a cavalry charge which he led personally. In a series of smaller engagements, the French eventually managed to repulse the remainder of the allied troops towards Bulskamp and Furnes.

    Battle of Hondschoote.jpg

    General Houchard, though victorious against all odds and acclaimed as a hero by the citizens of Dunkirk, was subsequently accused by a revolutionary tribunal of having allowed enemy troops to escape. After a drum-head trial, he was subsequently guillotined on November 25th 1793…

    I wonder if any of the military commanders involved in the defense of the Dunkirk perimeter in May 1940 gave a thought of what had happened on that same battlefield roughly 150 years earlier :glare:
  11. Wobbler

    Wobbler Well-Known Member

    Thank you for this very interesting thread Christian.

    I have not heard much about these actions and, if they were as important as you suggest, then I confess to feeling even more pride in my grandfather who would have fought in them (he was a Gunner in the 92nd’s 368 Battery). The 92nd was usually part of 5th Division, but had been “loaned” to the 50th.

    My father always told me that my grandad was one of the last out of Dunkirk, which would make perfect sense if he was involved in the rearguard battles. He also told me grandad’s only injury throughout the entire war was just before he was evacuated - jumping out of his vehicle just before destroying it, hurting his ankle. Sadly, I never talked with my grandfather about his war, much to my regret as he is, of course, no longer with us. Perhaps, however, he did not want to talk about it…

    I have attached some of the diary entries of the 92nd (courtesy of the National Archives and Drew5233 here) and the relevant extract from the Regiment’s DRAMA report (courtesy the RA Historical Trust), which I hope you will find helpful and of interest. They are not overly detailed but, of course, things were very hectic and fluid at that time.

    You will see the Regiment lost six guns destroyed in the battle, with six out of action. They withdrew with 12 guns, which appear to have been destroyed on 1 June.

    IMG_0548.png IMG_0549.png IMG_0550.png IMG_0551.png IMG_0531.jpeg IMG_0532.jpeg IMG_0533.jpeg IMG_0534.jpeg IMG_0536.jpeg IMG_0537.jpeg IMG_0538.jpeg IMG_0539.jpeg IMG_0525.jpeg

    Captain Austin is listed in the “Roll of Officers on Strength”. I was very interested, and delighted, to see that Captain Austin was also in 368 Battery (not 358, as you mention in your earlier post).


    Major Derek Cragg-Hamilton, together with Gunners Maurice Bull, Arthur Palmer and Charles Russell, all killed on 31st May, are buried at Veurne Communal Cemetery Extension. The diary states that at least 7 men were killed, but I can find only the three Gunners for this period on the CWGC site, although I confess that I do often find the searches and results on there confusing. That’s probably just me!

    I also have here some extracts from “Dunkirk, A Personal Memoir” by Ralph W. Wild, who was a Lance Bombardier in the 92nd at that time, which I hope you will also find of interest. He writes about what must surely be the death of Major Cragg-Hamilton on page 110. L/Bdr Wild mentions too that four of the men were also killed by that same shell, plus some others killed nearby, but, as I say, I can find only the three Gunners listed on CWGC for that day.

    IMG_0673.jpeg IMG_0691.jpeg IMG_0692.jpeg IMG_0693.jpeg IMG_0694.jpeg IMG_0696.jpeg IMG_0697.jpeg IMG_0698.jpeg IMG_0699.jpeg IMG_0700.jpeg IMG_0701.jpeg IMG_0702.jpeg IMG_0703.jpeg IMG_0704.jpeg IMG_0705.jpeg IMG_0707.jpeg IMG_0708.jpeg

    NOTE TO MODS, if I’ve used anything here that is not allowed, please let me know and I will remove immediately :)
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2023 at 10:39 PM
  12. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    Hallo Martin,

    Wow! This is truly amazing! Thanks a lot!

    As to the importance of the rearguard actions around Bulskamp, I would like to point out that if the Germans had been able to break through, they could have easily reached Ghyvelde and Bray-Dunes, effectively splitting the defense perimeter in half along the border. It doesn't take a grand strategist to imagine what catastrophic implications this would have had for all British forces still fighting in the eastern part of the perimeter (i.e. Furnes, Coxyde, Oostduinkerke, Nieuport and La Panne). It's all the more remarkable if you consider the balance of forces: a handful of battalions kept an entire German division in check.

    I must admit I always failed to understand why this specific part of the defense perimeter seemed to be considered as peripheral by most British authors and historians in the 'grand scheme of things' when it comes to Operation Dynamo. Perhaps it is due to the (relative) remoteness of the location?

    I did not know what to expect when I initially started this tread, but I am sure that every input contributed in somewhat correcting this oversight.

    Again, thank you for your contribution - most appreciated!

    Kind Regards,
    Last edited: May 25, 2023
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  13. John West

    John West Active Member

    I think you've uncovered a vital part of the Dunkirk story here Christian. Many congratulations.
  14. Wobbler

    Wobbler Well-Known Member

    EDIT: had a theory about the four unidentified graves in Bulskamp, but think I got it wrong so have deleted it. Sorry.
    Last edited: May 25, 2023
  15. Wobbler

    Wobbler Well-Known Member

    You’re most welcome.

    Ralph Wild writes about the farm and farmhouse, with its distinctive aviary, near Moere, which was used as the regimental command post, and you say that the battle site area hasn’t changed much over the years. I wonder, therefore, if the farm is still there, perhaps even the same family too…
    Last edited: May 25, 2023
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  16. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    I must admit the aviary was an element completely new to me. It’s however difficult to picture an aviary in an old Flemish farmhouse. The farmers in that region were generally very poor and had to work day and night in harsh conditions to provide for their families. An aviary, especially in those days, is something I’d rather imagine as part of a rich estate. I shall investigate further, but it would seem to me that two locations could fit the profile: Sint Flora castle and ‘t Moerland estate.

    Sint Flora was the residence of H.R.H. King Albert I and H.R.H. Queen Elisabeth in 1917. The Belgian Army’s HQ was then located in Houtem, a couple of miles south of Bulskamp. Back in the old days, the chateau was famous for its beautiful gardens. It is therefore easy to image the battalion commanders of the ‘Durham Brigade’ selecting it as a temporary CP in May 1940. It is equally easy to imagine an aviary in such a setting. Those original gardens, unfortunately, never recovered when the Germans flooded the entire area (salt water!) in 1944.

    Another possibility would be the farm estate ‘t Moerland. During King Albert’s stay in Sint Flora, ‘t Moerland served as billeting for his Military Staff. This estate, however, seems to have been completely destroyed by German artillery in May 1940. This site better fits Ralph Wild’s description. On the other hand, however, if this was the location of the Regiments CP, it would be much further away from the batteries which we know to have been located around the Sint Charles windmill.

    I shall investigate this new clue and let you know what I come up with.
    Last edited: May 25, 2023
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  17. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    The same location in 1946 - Source:

    Except for the many wrecks of miscellaneous ditched vehicles, it would have looked quite the same in May 1940. God only knows how many BEF-troops transited through this road on their way to the beaches. It's safe to say though there were a great many - including the whole Bulskamp rearguard and Martin's grandfather!

    FYI: I you look carefully, you can see on the tree trunks just how high the water came during the 1944 inundations.
    The ‘Cobergherstraat’ is named after Wenzel Cobergher, the engineer who designed and build the dyke-and-windmill system around De Moeren in the early 17th century in order to dry-up the land, making it suitable for agricultural purposes.

    Attached Files:

    Last edited: Jun 2, 2023 at 3:06 PM
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  18. Wobbler

    Wobbler Well-Known Member

    Being a farm estate, you would think ‘t Moerland to be the place Wild describes, with its farmhouse and barns, but you make an equally good case for Sint Flora too. Most intriguing.

    A remarkable photo of the Cobergherstraat in 1946, thank you for sharing it and also the “now” picture. To think grandad would have driven his Quad along it, past those same trees - wow, never thought I’d see anything like that, thank you.
    Last edited: May 25, 2023
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  19. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    Hallo again Nick,

    After having conducted some research, I can now provide some additional insights as to your inquiry.

    The windmill on the photo is definitely not the St. Charles windmill, which is a stone, tower-like construction. Also, St. Charles was painted in white, which made it stand out in the countryside - you just can't miss it. I still can't understand how the German artillery managed to do just that! Captain Austin must have had a guardian angel working overtime, watching over him!
    By the same token, you can also rule out the St. Gustaaf mill, which also looks completely different.

    I recently discovered though, that a wooden windmill did indeed exist in Bulskamp at the time It was called the 'Molen Deburggraeve' (after the name of its owner) . This mill was completely destroyed early on the combats, when the German infantry approached the village. It can therefor not be the one on your photo. Also, the wooden windmill in Bulskamp was located relatively close-by the local St. Bertinus church. Your windmill, however,.seems to be at quite a considerable distance form the church on the photo.

    Molen Deburggraeve.jpg

    I hope this somewhat helps you in your research.

    Have a nice weekend,
    Last edited: May 28, 2023
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  20. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Active Member

    Please find hereunder, based on the information collected so far, a first tentative draft to comprehensively depict the battle area around Bulskamp between May 29th and May 31st 1940.

    Bulskamp-De Moeren 29-31 May 1940.jpg

    The location of the principal engagements (Nieuwpoorthoek, ‘t Zwaantje and Houthem bridge) is based on several sources and accounts, which were linked to a personal site survey.

    For all intents and purposes I found it practical to define the FLOT (Forward Line of Own Troops) as being the Bergues-Furnes canal (or ‘Bergensevaart’ in Dutch). The second line of defense was most certainly the Ringsloot. I would also like to emphasis though, that a number of elements are based on hypothetical assessments (yet based on ‘good old common sense’) such as:
    • The position referred to by Colonel C E Ryan of the 12th Lancers (a.k.a. the ‘inconspicuous bump’ – cfr. Post of May 19th) is almost certainly the ‘Nieuwpoorthoek’. We may indeed never know for sure, but it is the only place that seems to match the description.
    • The location of the 92/Field Regiment’s CP (a.k.a. ‘the aviary farmhouse’) remains uncertain and needs to be further investigated.
    • The position of the 3/CG may have been located a little further north.
    • The location of the Durham infantry battalions is very approximate. Perhaps War Diary inputs could shed some light on their precise positions and dispositions.
    • I’m afraid my sources with regard to the German 216.ID are very limited. I therefor expect future corrections to be necessary, especially with regard to the position of their various infantry regiments. I also was unable to define their precise ‘Abschnittgrenze’. Any help in that regard would be most welcome.
    Bottom line: please consider this as an initial attempt - even though all the pieces of the puzzle may seem to fit together nicely.
    As such, I would most welcome every comment, input or feedback that may help fine-tuning this map.

    Kind Regards,
    Last edited: May 29, 2023
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