Lord Gort’s Command Post in Renaix

Discussion in '1940' started by Christian Luyckx, Mar 10, 2023.

  1. In May 1940, the town of Renaix, in Belgium, was the theatre of intense British military activity. Nowadays, everyone uses the E429 motorway to drive form Lille to Brussels. However, in 1940, the most direct route from Northern France towards Brussels was via the axis Tournai – Renaix - Brakel - Ninove. The town was located halfway this strategic artery for the BEF’s successful deployment into Belgium. As a result, many units were continuously transiting through Renaix (Ronse in Dutch).

    Subsequently, on May 13th, the 100th Coy., Royal Monmouthshire, RE, under the command of Major G. Whitehead arrived in Renaix with orders to construct a Command Post forthwith. In addition, two large houses on the outskirts of the town were also requisitioned to serve as separate Messes for the BEF C. in C’s (Lord Gort, V.C.) and H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester. The C. in C. and a large staff arrived the following afternoon. Security was provided by a platoon of 2nd Bn. Welsh Guards.

    According to local sources, on May 16th, after having been warned by British Intelligence that the CP’s location had been compromised, the position was swiftly evacuated and relocated to an alternate site a couple of miles outside Renaix. This proved to be a wise decision, for in the late afternoon of May 17th, the old CP’s location was leveled by Stuka’s causing massive civilian collateral damage in the process. The last British forces evacuated Renaix on May 19th and retreated behind the Escault. Soon thereafter, the town fell in German hands.

    For years, I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to identify which properties were requisitioned as Messes for Lord Gort and H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester. As for the alternate CP, I suspect it was located in the village of Wattripont, a few miles south-west of Renaix, on the road to Tournai. It is also possible that the RAF might have used a nearby pasture as an improvised airfield for its liaison aircraft.

    Unfortunately, most of Renaix’ civil administrative archives were lost in the turmoil. I also contacted the Royal Monmouthshire Regimental Museum, but they could not help me further.

    I must admit I am a bit at a loss. I have reached an impasse and I'm hoping that some BEF-experts among you could provide me with some clues that would allow me to resume my research.

    Kind Regards,
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  2. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Wonderful stuff, Christian. Not a question that can be answered with a five-minute look-up. I'll have a look through all my sources but it's a little off track in terms of the main BEF withdrawal, I think. Maybe reserve units who hadn't advanced as far as the Dijl. The answers sill be out there, rest assured.

    The 1940 sub-forum is not as active as it once was, but I have an idea that I know who to ask.
  3. Quarterfinal

    Quarterfinal Well-Known Member


    From 'The British Expeditionary Force 1939-40' by E Smalley, it would seem that the CP moved to Wahagnies on 10 May and on to Renaix on 13 May. No exact location is cited. However, Command and Control deficiencies prompted the establishment of a 'small Battle Post' at Lennick St Quentin on 15 May, with the Commander in Chief and his Chief of General Staff operating from there until a better resourced/enlarged Command Post could take Command at Premesques on 21 May.

    Would this fit-in with your understanding? It does not mention the CP decamping to an intermediate location such as Wattripont. Smalley mentions a 'post-Dunkirk Bartholomew Committee' scrutinizing what occurred, presumably with a view to lessons learned, so any Committee Report, if available, might contain exact locations. Montgomery is quoted noting how the size of the CP grew and grew and I can imagine it being a bit of a circus.

    Snippets might be available at:
    The British Expeditionary Force, 1939-40

    Afternote: Reel 3 (Not Heard) of the Oral History at:
    Tong, Robert Percy (Oral history)
    of a staff officer with General Headquarters, British Expeditionary Force in France may expand.
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2023
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  4. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    Does this help from WO 167/29 GHQ Command Post war diary.

    Attached Files:

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  5. John West

    John West Active Member

    This is off topic slightly, but I have an interest in Major G Whitehead as I picked up his daring escape story in the final days of the Dunkirk rearguard action.

    His RE unit was part of 145 Brigade at Cassel, and participated in the ill-fated break-out towards Watou in Belgium on 30/5/40. Under fire, he managed to escape the Germans near Watou at the Franco-Belgian border and evaded them until capture in Forges-les-Eaux in Normandy on 24/7/40. He was accompanied in this 2-month break for freedom in occupied France by an officer from my father's 140 Field Regiment RA (Capt Coll Lorne MacDougall) and Sapper Bate RE.

    Whitehead was nominated for a MC, and MacDougall was MID, for bravery at Cassel and for their joint daring escape attempt.

    I tell the story in my website here: Captain Coll Lorne MacDougall – 140th (5th London) Army Field Regiment, Royal Artillery

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  6. Hallo Andy,

    Thanks a lot your your input - much appreciated!

    The entry "Command Post moved to underground offices in factory at north end of RENAIX" seems to exclude my Wattripont hypothesis since that village is located on the south-west of Renaix.

    Since my last post, I think I was able to determine the site of the original British CP in Renaix: It would seem that it was located opposite the regional Belgian Army CP which was located in the Sint-Anthonius catholic school. This would situate the British CP in the buildings of the former 'Conditionnement Public' (i.e. a large storage facility for cotton and wool - Renaix use to be famous for its textile industry). Both CP's were located at a stone's trow of the Renaix railway station.

    Source/Reference: 'Le Renaisis pendant la seconde guerre mondiale', Volume 1 1940-1943 by N. Deconick

    I took the liberty of posting two pictures of the Sint-Anthonius catholic school, one before and one after the Luftwaffe's attack on May 17th. It would seem that, although the British CP was the intended target, it was the Belgian CP that was completely and utterly leveled. A German Intelligence bug? We may never know. What is striking though, despite the collateral damage, is the degree of precision achieved by the Stuka pilots in such a densely build-up urban area. Amazing... Modern-day pilots would be hard pressed to achieve the same result with laser-guided ordnance.

    The school was rebuild after the war and still exists today whereas the building where the original British CP was located seems to have suffered only superficial damage.

    History can sometimes take an ironical twist: the building where the former British CP was located is now home to a firm specialized in disaster-relief aid products and is located in the... Charles de Gaulle street (the post-war name of the street).

    You may also be interested to learn that the avenue that saw the first British units arrive on May 10th 1940, withdraw a week later and finally liberate the town on September 3rd 1944 is now called 'Boulevard des Anglais' (or 'Engelsenlaan' in Dutch). A small memorial was erected after the war where a remembrance ceremony is conducted each year on the day the town was liberated. The square in front of the railway station has also been renamed after the war. It is now the 'Place Winston Churchill' (or 'Winston Churchillplein' in Dutch).

    Kind Regards,

    Attached Files:

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  7. Hello John,
    I just took a quick peek at your website - splendid work! First class! I always wanted to learn more about the heroic defense of Cassel but never found the opportunity nor the time to compile relevant reading material. You made my day!
    Regarding Major Whitehead: would you, by any chance, know where I could find a picture of this officer?
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  8. John West

    John West Active Member

    I've not found an image of him but you could perhaps try the Regimental museum at Monmouth Castle, Wales UK.

    100 Company's Battle, 1940 | C a s t l e a n d R e g i m e n t a l M u s e u m - M o n m o u t h also has a good description of Major Whitehead's unit, including the construction of the HQ at Renaix:

    '...On 13th May 100th Coy. under the command of Major G. Whitehead went forward to construct a Command Post at Renaix in Belgium.

    The site chosen was a large warehouse adjoining the Railway Station with one end covered by a concrete stage. One side was almost entirely glass but in spite of the protests or the OC. they were ordered to prepare this as a Command Post forthwith.

    Although they worked all night they had not completed the work when the C. in C. (Lord Gort, V.C.) and a large staff arrived the following afternoon. The sub-basement under the stage had to be cleared of bales of wool and this part was sandbagged as far as possible and allotted to the C. in C. and his GOps. and staff. Apart from this, G.H.Q’s only protection against bomb damage was black-out material. All the remainder, namely the E. in C., the M.G.R.A. etc., with their staffs and clerks had to squeeze into the main room with the exception of Lord Gort’s Private Secretary who was helpful and his Personal Assistant, Lord Munster.

    The Coy. was working directly under the E. in C. most of the time as the CRE. was otherwise engaged. Signals were installed even nearer the station and did magnificent work throughout the stay in Belgium under a Scottish SR. Captain in spite of considerable difficulty with the French and Belgian public telephone services.

    A large house on the outskirts of Renaix already housing several refugee families of unknown origin was chosen for the C. in C’s Mess which was not a very good security risk despite the presence of a platoon of 2nd Bn. Welsh Guards. A separate Mess was provided for the Duke of Gloucester.

    On the following morning after several air raids and alerts it was decided to move G.H.Q. quickly and the site chosen was a factory in Renaix about 2 miles away. This had a large yard of cobblestones laid on 6 ins. of rotten concrete with numerous cellars below and was surrounded by buildings housing machinery and several warehouses full of bales of wool. Overlooking the whole was a very large and ancient chimney-stack which looked as though it would fall at any moment. The site could not be called ideal. Signals had to be fixed up first and still had to keep their previous exchange open. Several branches of G.H.Q. decided to move in almost before the Coy. had started work. In addition they had to clear out bales of wool from several warehouses using their lorry winches and 300 unknown Belgium civilian labourers, again bad security.

    The C. in C. refused to go under the yard and chose an open sided warehouse which needed much sand-bagging and a great deal of shoring up. Lt. Jobson of 101st Coy. and his Section of Aberbargoed miners assisted in this task and did sterling work but not without hard words because at times a prop to support the roof had to be erected in the middle of one of the constant ‘Top-Secret’ conferences. This work continued day and night but there were increasing signs of a fresh move although work was not stopped until G.H.Q. began to move back.

    Lt. Fletcher with a few men prepared a Field Command Post at Lennic St. Quentin by blacking-out a few rooms but it is questionable whether the C. in C. ever used it.

    On 17th May the Coy, was ordered to report to General Mason Macfarlane just North of Douai. On arrival it was found that he commanded "Mac Force" which appeared to consist of some partly trained Infantry Bns. just out from the United Kingdom, 100th Coy. and occasionally some odd artillery, and an unsupported CRE. (Lt.-Col. Nutt).
    The role of the infantry was to act as forward cover for a demolition belt along the line of the River Scarpe from Raches to Milionfosse but, as in many cases, it was not known from which direction to expect the enemy. There was a certain amount of confusion, and the Coy. had to provide their own protection and also to make provision to blow bridges from either side.

    In the days which followed eighteen big road, rail and river bridges between Raches and Milionfosse were prepared for deliberate demolition. All ranks worked night and day and often explosives had to be located and "scrounged”, there was the occasional low-flying air attack, and roads were made impassable by terrified refugees who were continually disturbing the firing circuits. Yet the task, which was begun on Friday 17th May, was completed by the following Tuesday. Some of the bridges, for example those at Marchoennes, were of considerable importance because of their size and strategic position.
    The road bridge at Milionfosse was unfortunately blown on the orders of a H.L.I. Subaltern who did so by mistake because of a misquoted message, but it was destroyed most efficiently.

    On 19th May the responsibility was increased to roughly 24 bridges from Auby to Milionfosse and shortly afterwards the charges on all bridges were increased. They could not spare more than four men per bridge as demolition parties and they were on continuous duty and had to provide their own sentry on each bank.

    There were reports that German motorised units were probing on the south bank of the River Scarpe, and some of the prepared bridges were blown. Firing parties were left on 15 bridges and told to rendezvous at Chateau Bernicourt; refugees crowded the roads and H.Q. Section and No. 3 Section were lucky to escape when machine gunned by hedge-hopping enemy aircraft. Troops were rested on 21st May and biscuits and bully were issued because rations were getting scarce.

    On 22nd May the Company was ordered to deny to the enemy the huge crude oil refinery at Coichelettes SE. of Douai. It was prepared for demolition in the face of persistent dive bombing by enemy ‘Stukas’ but the destruction was colossal and a fire of huge proportions resulted. On the following day the OC. received a commendation from General Mason-Macfarlane for the way in which they had destroyed the oil refinery.

    It was becoming clear that the Germans were attempting to contain the B.E.F., and motorised columns which moved westwards began swinging to the north and finally began to probe eastwards.

    On 23rd May the Company moved back to the Foret de Nieppe (South East of Hazebrouck) leaving the firing parties on the bridges.

    An amusing event relieved the tension and strain felt by all ranks. When approaching Vermilles during an air raid a bridge was blown by an unknown unit just as the column entered the main street which led to it. A huge piece of bridge fell out of the skies and skidded up the pave and stopped just short of the truck of the 2 I/C who was leading the column, and barred further retreat. Whilst maps were being examined for another crossing, a furious Brigadier raved at them for blowing the bridge. Tempers became frayed on both sides and eventually the Brigadier realised that the Company also were victims of the panic-firing of the bridge. Fortunately, a small and somewhat weak bridge was discovered and the Brigadier asked if he might be allowed to follow along behind the Company. With great good fortune the Company, the Brigade H.Q. transport and men were led without mishap to the other side of the bridge. The Company spent some time at a village in sight of Cassel, during which time firing parties were being visited and bridges blown.

    Lt. Mercer and his section were sent out to destroy two bridges held by the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards with a pitiful 500 lbs. of guncotten. One of these bridges turned out to be a heavy railway bridge and to make the best use of the guncotten would have been a laborious task of dubious value. Upon investigation however it was found that it was fully mined for demolition, so that the 500 lbs. of guncotten was used on the other bridge which was made of reinforced slabs of concrete. Both bridges were blown at the same time resulting in a really beautiful demolition for the whole of the railway bridge superstructure was blown downstream about 50 yards, and the guncotten demolished half a village as well. Unfortunately a few heads were seen to be poking out of windows as they left so it wasn’t as completely evacuated as they had been told. Strategically this was not of great value for the Germans were crossing a mile or so away while it was being demolished.
    By this time air activity was increasing and Steenevoorde and Poperinghe were heavily bombed and British units were withdrawing.

    Lts. Whittaker and Fletcher were sent to bring in the firing parties whilst the remainder of the Coy. waited for an opportunity to fall back into Cassel which was accomplished on 24th May during a heavy artillery attack and in the middle of a counter attack by 2nd Bn. Welsh Guards who had heavy casualties.

    It was here that the Company’s first casualty occurred, Sapper Davies, L. A. being killed by a machine gun bullet from a plane. Until this moment the Company’s transport had been intact, good maintenance having carried the Company throughout the engagement without failure.
    The Company had lost contact with H.Q. “Mac Force” and attached itself to 145 Infantry Brigade which was commanded by Brigadier Nigel Somerset, brother of Lord Raglan who later became Hon. Col. after the War.

    He had taken over the Brigade soon after the 10th May. The other Units in the Brigade were 2nd Bn. The Gloucestershire Rgt. and 4th Bn. Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, East Riding Yeomanry and some TA. Gunners.

    In their travels, which are shown on the map on page 74, the Coy. had acquired quite a number of stragglers, and several vehicles including a petrol tanker, a bren carrier and for a short time a field gun.

    145 Infantry Brigade put up a stubborn defence of Cassel, which had been H.Q. 2nd Army during the 1914—18 War. It was a good town to defend, Headquarters were underground on the hill-top and the slopes were defended by infantry and artillery and several tank attacks were repulsed with 18-pounder field guns. As a result the position came in for heavy artillery bombardment but organisation remained unbroken and contact was maintained with High Command by radio, field telephone and messenger until the voluntary withdrawal. For the few days the Coy. were in Cassel they were occupied in preparing and fortifying infantry and gunnery posts on the vulnerable NW. slopes, the work sometimes being carried out under fire.

    The Coy’s last task on 27th May was an unsuccessful attempt by Lt. Mercer and his Section to blow up a bridge on the main Cassel—Dunkirk road, (still held by our troops). They met a German armoured car head-on, which immediately started firing killing Driver J. J. R. Ware and wounding Lt. Mercor and Driver Macey. The Germans appeared to be just as surprised as our men and fortunately did not press home their attack.

    Cassel was soon entirely out of touch with the outside world as the code books had been prematurely destroyed and DR’s were unable to get through. The result was that orders to withdraw were received too late, but possibly this was as well as it may have helped the main evacuation at Dunkirk.

    Lt. Mercer and most of his Section arrived back in Cassel to find the Brigade about to move out.

    On the night of 27/28th May Cassel was evacuated on foot, and all material likely to be of value to the enemy was destroyed, but more troops might well have got to Dunkirk if the transport had been used. The march out of Cassel was attempted by night — a lovely night, made beautiful with the song of nightingales which had not been driven from their haunts by the noise of the battle. At the head of the column the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry under Lt.-Col. Kennedy attempted to break through the German forces which had encircled Cassel and progress was slow. With the first light planes spotted the move and mortar fire directed at the column soon caused disorder, and troops took cover from the heavy fire. Near Watou the 2 I/C, Captain W. Deacon, and interpreter Jean Streichenberges received wounds which incapacitated them.

    After some time the Germans began advancing and the OC. Major Whitehead moved part of the Company, and some others who had attached themselves, along an anti-tank ditch and about 40 got through before German A.F.V’s enfiladed the ditch. They then marched for some hours in a gradual left hand circle to bring them back to Dunkirk but were evidently shadowed, and they were shot up again by a tank when crossing a road and all but three of that party were captured there.

    The three — Captain C. L. MacDougall, RA., Sapper Bate H. W. and Major G. Whitehead were captured 8 weeks later near Forges-les-Eaux north of Rouen.

    On 30th May those who had not been captured split up into small parties of various units and about mid-day Lt. Mercer with about six men including L/Sgt Vittle, Cpl Howard and a big red haired sapper from 101st Coy, who was wounded in the head were lying up in a small wood adjacent to a main road which they were amazed to see was full of British transport carrying German Troops. On the night of the 3Oth/3lst May this small party set off for Dunkirk which could easily be seen in the distance because of the burning petrol tanks. They had a very slow journey due to the perimeter wire, parachute flares in great profusion and the wounded men. At day-break they were still only about half-way and were obviously surrounded by the enemy so they laid up until night-fall in a small depression near a farm. In the early hours of the 1st June they came to a cross roads and decided to go cross country to avoid the roads but unfortunately they chose to cross an airfield and were confronted by the airfield patrol to whom they had to surrender.

    Air activity in the Cassel area made it impossible for Lts. Fletcher and Whittaker and their parties to rejoin the Company. After completing their demolition work at Douai they actually reached the outskirts of Cassel with their personnel and transport whilst aerial attacks were being made on Steenevoorde and Poperinghe. The artillery bombardment directed on Cassel finally prevented their entry. These two officers with 22 sappers and 14 drivers reported to Lt.-Col. Poole who sent the drivers to the coast and ordered the officers and sappers to blow the bridges between Hondschoote and Bergues on the 30th May and to move back to the coast independently.

    They did this and embarked near Dunkirk on 31st May on which day these few returned to England in the well-known fleet of boats of every size when, only eleven kilometres away, the major part of the Company were or were about to be captured or wounded and destined to spend the next four and a half years in German prison camps.

    100th Coy, by virtue of their posting to G.H.Q. Troops, had hardly expected to be involved so deeply in the now historic rearguard action. With other illustrious units who were lost to make Dunkirk possible, the R.M.R.E. were mentioned in the commendations made later and individuals were mentioned in dispatches, some more than once.

    Of the Regiment Lord Gort said “They never failed to carry out any duty entrusted to them.”
  9. Quarterfinal

    Quarterfinal Well-Known Member

  10. Some new developments on this topic to share with you after a little weekend excursion to Renaix.

    The Royal Monmouthshire’s website provided some interesting clues as to the location of the BEF’s alternate CP in Renaix. Consequently, I went in search of an old textile factory about two miles north from the original CP. The only facility that would seem to fit the bill is the former site of the textile works formerly known as ‘Teintureries Belges’, located in de Rue du Loup (Wolvenstraat in Dutch). I was, however, as yet unable to find some documents to corroborate this hypothesis. When production ceased in 2000 the site was abandoned and became a favored spot for graffiti taggers and urban explorers until recently redeveloped into a cultural centre.

    If I am correct in this assumption, then Maj Whitehead and his party of Royal Engineers were not the first to select this spot for military purposes. Ironically, the same buildings served as Germans barracks during WWI (the ‘Herzog Albrecht Kazerne’). After the British retreat in 1940, the site was subsequently used by the Germans as a processing and transit centre for British, French and Belgian PoWs.

    Unfortunately, I was not able to make any further progress as to find the locations of the two ‘large houses’ requisitioned as messes for Lord Gort and H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester. It would be a safe guess though that these properties must have been two of the dozens of residences build by the local textile tycoons on the outskirts of Ronse during the Industrial Revolution. Some of them are indeed true architectural gems and are well worth a detour.

    If I had to make an educated guess, based on all available information, local hear-say and the profile of the facilities used as mess for the BEF’s C-in-C in France, the ‘Domaine Saint Hubert’ and ‘Villa Madonna’ (both nowadays event locations) would be on top of my list. Both sites fit the general profile, are located on a main access road (Rue de la Croix / Kruisstraat) and located in the vicinity of the ‘Teintureries Belges’. Also, both domains are almost neighbouring one another. This would have been a serious advantage in terms of security (a consideration not to be neglected since the region was then swarming with enemy agents!).

    Unfortunately, at this stage, it’s all conjecture! It’s doubtful any photos are existing for, at the time, taking pictures would have been considered a serious breach of security. Perhaps digging into the 2nd Bn. Welsh Guards war records (anyone?) could shed some light on the matter as they were in charge of security.

    The little summary sketch hereunder should help improve situational awareness.

    BEF Renaix May 1940.png

    I'll keep you posted if something new should come up. Please keep in mind that the whole exercise is still very ‘tentative’ at this time. Every input that could help confirm or clarify the situation would therefore be most appreciated.

    Kind Regards,
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  11. At the start of this tread I suggested that a BEF CP could have been located in the village of Wattripont, a few miles south-west of Renaix. This was based on local hear-say and the fact that Wattripont was located on the road to Tournai, one of the main routes used by the BEF during its withdrawn to Northern France.

    As it happens, there was indeed a CP located in Wattripont. It was, however, German...

    Shortly after the BEF had vacated the area, the site was earmarked for the Luttwaffe's 4(H)/22 .
    This reconnaissance/observation squadron worked for the benefit of the IX. Armeekorps and was equipped with Henschel Hs126 aircraft. The airstrip was roughly located halfway on the axis between the villages of Wattripont and Dergnaux (tumbnail photo found on eBay). The nearby Château de Béthune (today also known as 'Château Bagatelle') was used as the Staffel's CP.

    It's too early though, to conclude that there never has been a British presence in Wattripont.
    During the course of the campaign, the 4.(H)/22 often used captured facilities. For example, prior to arriving at Wattripont, the Staffel operated from the captured Belgian airfields of Vissenaken and Peutie. After Wattripont, they moved on to Moorsele which was briefly used by 615 Sqn between May 16th and May 25th 1940.

    Was the site of Wattripont used by the BEF prior to the arrival of the Luftwaffe? Perhaps as an airstrip for RAF liaison aircraft as it lies close to Renaix? The question remains open.

    As always, I would welcome inputs that may help shedding some light on the matter.

    Kind Regards,

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