2078270 Sapper John Charles KILROY 228 Field Company Royal Engineers, 49th West Riding Division.
KILLED IN ACTION 27th May 1940
John was killed on the first day of the evacuation from Dinkirk, Operation Dynamo. He had lived at 749 Attercliffe Road, Sheffield. This building exists today and is now a branch of the Royal Bank Of Scotland. He is buried in Sheffield City Road Cemetery.
This is how Johns war would have panned out.
JUST before the war the strength of the 49th West Riding Divisional Royal Engineers, whose headquarters were at Somme Barracks, Sheffield, was doubled.
The original 228, 229, 230 Field Companies and 231 Field Park Company were commanded by Lieut.-Colonel F. L. Colley, and the newly-raised 2/49th Divisional Engineers (afterwards becoming the 46th North Midlands Divisional R.E.), comprising 270, 271, 272 Field Companies, and 273 Field Park Company, were commanded by Lieut.-Colonel J. A. McWilliam.
The first of the original companies to go overseas was 228, which received orders in mid-September 1939 to go to France.
They embarked at Southampton and from Cherbourg 228 went first to Albert and then to Bonnance, near Templeuve.
Here the company was one of 10 Territorial Field Companies formed into “X” Force under the command of Brigadier Minnis to construct defences on the French-Belgian frontier as a continuation north of the Maginot Line.
Work done included the construction of pill boxes, huts and roadways.
But soon the “phoney war” ended. The Germans invaded and the roads near the billets of 228 Company were crowded with pitiable refugees.
Conditions were such that it was necessary on May 16th for the Company to leave Orville just before midnight and go to Sailly Saillisel, a thoroughly depressing village, deserted except for the bodies of civilians killed in air raids.
Here they were ordered to prepare for demolition of bridges on the Somme Canal around Peronne. All of them were blown—some under fire from lorried enemy infantry. Then 228 organized the road blocks and defences at Bucquoy before moving on to Haverskerque.
Canal Bridges Blown up
Here the Mayor had evacuated the population and 228 were left alone in their outpost positions, awaiting the enemy.
However, there was a successful withdrawal, without contact, and the company found a good bivouac in a wood between Haverskerque and Merville where, at a conference with C.R.E., they were given orders to prepare seven bridges on the Bassee canal for deliberate demolition, together with two at Arcques and one at Thiennes on the Lys canal. Defensive positions were also required as the Company was responsible for holding the gaps.
A train Full of French troops was bombed and burned out in Aire Station early one morning, and a petrol and ammunition dump nearby was set on fire. As the sun came up, a heavy ground mist protected the working parties from the air, although enemy aircraft could be heard low overhead and occasionally were seen dimly through the mist.
During the morning the situation deteriorated and what had started as deliberate demolitions were finished as hasty ones and two lorries were sent to collect more explosive which, it was reported, had been sent to France in a destroyer.
All that night there was desultory firing and in the morning reinforcements arrived in the shape of an Infantry Company of the 46th Division, who were deployed on the canal bank.
This was on May 23rd, and the enemy soon reached the canal with tanks and lorried infantry, opening fire on the demolition parties and defensive positions with mortars and machine guns.
The Sections had a very bad time of it indeed, there was little cover on their side of the canal, while the enemy made skilful use of factory buildings on his side. Rifles and Bren guns were not very adequate against the enemy’s superior fire power and serious casualties occurred.
As the pressure increased, the bridges were blown to prevent capture, and after a very gallant defence and delaying action, the Sections were forced to withdraw until finally the whole position was outflanked on the right.
A withdrawal was then made to the nearest Infantry Brigade H.Q. at Morbecque. Most of one Section made their way to the C.R.E.’s H.Q. where they were retained and rejoined the Company later in England.
All the Sections had to destroy most of their transport on leaving the canal bank, as it was impossible to withdraw it, and with it went the tools, so that the Company had now lost a great deal of its fighting and working power. Ten bridges had been prepared for demolition, two handed over for firing and the rest demolished by the Company, mostly under fire.
A large railway bridge, made incidentally of Sheffield steel, resulted in only partial demolition at the first attempt and subsequent charges were fixed and fired under fire in the close presence of the enemy, the job being finished with coolness, resource and great courage.
Most of the night of May 23-24 was spent by the O.C. at the Brigadier’s conference while the Company rested as best it could. Orders were received to man a sector for the all round defence of Morbecque and the position was taken up before dawn.
During the morning the village was shelled by tanks hull down on the opposite side of a low ridge, and very accurate fire it was, directed by a low flying German observation plane which seemed to be impervious to small arms fire.
Fortunately, 228 had no more casualties, although the Infantry suffered rather heavily. After enemy Infantry had been beaten off, and several counter attacks launched the Brigadier ordered a withdrawal to Merville, and this was successfully accomplished.
During a wretched night spent by the Company in a wood outside Merville, right in the line established for the night, the O.C. regained touch with the then C.R.E., Lt.-Col. Maclaren, in the midst of a tank Battle in the Fôret de Nieppe, and the Company was moved to Vireux Berquin to be in support and to rest.
Afterwards 228 was moved to billets near Oultersteene in order to organize an all round defence with the other Field Company under the CRE.
Later the C.E.R.’s H.Q. was discovered to be deserted and a search for the other Field Company merely revealed the billets they had already left, and they were not be found in the area.
In the meantime a Divisional H.Q. has established itself nearby and as they were withdrawing again to the North in the morning, it was decided that 228 would report at the Divisional rendezvous in Belgium. Accordingly personnel were loaded in the remaining Company transport in the morning early and the small column left for Belgium.
The O.C. and a Subaltern went round the billets after the lorries had left, and picking up in their trucks two sappers found asleep in the hay in a barn, they set out after the Company. Progress was good to start with, but the rest of the Company was not overtaken as expected and it became increasingly clear that they must have taken a different route.
Before passing through Poperinghe, which was on fire and congested with British and French Army transport, a halt was made on the main Cassel-Poperinghe road, and a dispatch rider was sent back to look for the Company, without success.
Large quantities of eggs were bought from a farm during this wait and hard boiled in the copper and later they proved worth their weight in gold. German tanks were then advancing from Cassel, so it was not possible to wait any longer, and H.Q. personnel moved on to Oost Cappel, the Divisional rendezvous.
Here there was no one but an officer of the Provost Corps awaiting some Infantry and a Gunner Major looking for his Battery. It appeared that the Division had already gone on.
228 H.Q. opened a deserted house and there made itself a cup of tea and waited for the rest of the Company, who, they were convinced, were still behind somewhere. Soon there was a shout from the sentry that the Company was passing, but unfortunately it proved possible only to stop the last vehicle, and this was attached to H.Q.
Later, it was found that they had sailed from Dunkirk that night and after calling at another French port, reached England safely.
To return to the small H.Q. party, it was decided to rest for an hour, as the road was now quite clear of traffic and the time would easily be made up, but the arrival of enemy shells close by altered the situation and the party left rather earlier.
After a few miles the crawling congestion was caught up again, and Bergues being seen to be on fire in the distance, all traffic took to the single track country roads to the North. It was dark by this time, to everyone’s relief, because the Luftwaffe had been offered a magnificent target all the evening and had unaccountably failed to attack most of it.
Much of the night was spent creeping along, with transport nose to tail without lights, until, while still dark, a park of burning vehicles was reached near Killein and all traffic was stopped by Military Police. This was the first intimation that an evacuation was taking place at Dunkirk.
The H.Q. transport was therefore taken down a side track, already blocked with heavy demolished lorries, and after a short sleep until dawn, the men sadly and reluctantly destroyed the trucks.
The party then set out on foot for Dunkirk, with all personal equipment. and the precious hard boiled eggs. The beach was reached to the East of the town in the early afternoon, and after a reconnaissance on a borrowed motor cycle, the O.C. decided to join the parties waiting at the jetty for embarkation.
Ship had a “Near Miss”
After many attacks from the air and a great deal of marching about during a long wait, the party was fortunate enough to be taken aboard a ship that evening. Even after sailing there were eight more attacks on the ship, a bomb at one stage lifting the propeller out of the water, but there were no more casualties.
Considering that enemy aircraft had no opposition in the air, and came so low that the pilot’s faces could be seen quite clearly, it was not an impressive performance by the Luftwaffe, as those on the target were best able to judge, but unfortunately other ships leaving the harbour were not so lucky, several being hit and some having to return in a sinking condition.
Once clear of the land, there followed a very peaceful, if crowded, trip to Dover, where a train was waiting, into which the troops were packed, and they reached Blandford the next afternoon.