Soldiers of Oxfordshire

The following information was provided by The Research Panel, the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, as a result of an enquiry from the daughter of Howard Clifford Bryant, 4th Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry:

After mobilisation on the declaration of war, the 4th Battalion assembled on 14/09/1939 on Greenham Common south of Newbury for formal training and integration with the other regiments in the brigade. The Battalion departed for France on 18/01/1940 with the British Expeditionary Force, as part of 145 Brigade, 48th (South Midland) Division. Once in France, some battlefield training and exercises took place but a great deal of time was wasted in building concrete blockhouses and anti-tank ditches to extend the Gort defensive Line on the Belgian border.

On 10 May, the Battalion was at Thuméries, a mining village south of Lille. When the Germans attacked, the division advanced with the BEF into Belgium, to plug the hole created by Belgian neutrality. They deployed south of Brussels along a metal anti-tank fence looking over the Waterloo battlefield, digging in to defend their positions against an armoured attack.

The Kleist and Hoth Groups of German Panzers broke through the French Army to the south and made for the channel coast and from then on the BEF withdrew from position to position. During the next two weeks the 4th Battalion were under constant attack from the air, as well as skirmishing with enemy infantry patrols. In one air attack near Tournai, elements of the Battalion were caught in a large traffic jam in broad daylight and were badly hit losing considerable casualties.

On the 25/05/1940 Lord Gort, the Commander in Chief, decided to evacuate the BEF and the Royal Navy put into effect Operation Dynamo. A sack-shaped perimeter was formed round an escape corridor to the French port of Dunkirk. 145 Brigade were ordered to form strong-points round the south-west sector of the perimeter. The 4th Battalion and the 2nd Glosters were sent to hold the small hilltop town of Cassel, one of the few areas of high ground in Flanders, standing between the Germans who were now advancing from the west, and the Channel coast.

On the 27/05/1940, the 4th Battalion and the 2nd Glosters in Cassel were attacked by two battle-groups of the 6th Panzer Division which advanced under almost constant artillery fire and dive-bombing. Supporting the two battalions were two batteries of field artillery and the guns of the Worcestershire Yeomanry, an anti-tank regiment, which gave as good as they got.

The 2nd Glosters held the western end of Cassel and the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry the eastern. Cassel being a walled town standing on a steep feature, the German attacks had to come on narrow frontages at the ends of the hill. After two days of bitter fighting the Germans gave up and decided to encircle the garrison. With Cassel completely surrounded, food and ammunition virtually exhausted, orders came to withdraw and make for Dunkirk. Overnight on the 29/05/1940, the garrison slipped out leaving their wounded in the town. However, they made only slow progress over the countryside and when dawn lifted the majority were captured, some after a final fighting stand. It is likely that Private Bryant was captured at this time.

The performance of the 4th Battalion and the Glosters at Cassel won precious extra time for the troops heading for the coast but the Battalion was eliminated in the process, with just 3 officers and 82 soldiers reporting for duty, having reached Dunkirk. 21 officers and the majority of the men became prisoners of war, of whom 20 were to die in captivity. Michael Fleming, brother of Ian and Peter, who was serving as Adjutant of the 4th Battalion, died of wounds in captivity after the battle.

Allied disasters such as the fall of Cassel in 1940 produced an influx of over 40,000 British POWs into Germany. Most of the 4th Battalion internees, together with others of 145 Brigade including men of the 1st Bucks Battalion captured at Hazebrouck, found themselves mainly incarcerated in three POW camps: Stalag XXID at Posen (Poznan, today), Stalag XXA at Thorn (Torun, today) and Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf in Upper Silesia. Posen and Thorn were old, brick-built, eighteenth century fortresses in eastern Poland, built to defend Prussia from possible Russian attack.

Private Bryant found himself incarcerated in Lamsdorf POW camp, Lambinowice today in modern Poland. He would have been roughly marched, trucked and entrained overland to Lamsdorf, and given the POW No.10110. The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Part II Orders “Y” List dated 1/10/1940 records Private 5387461 H C Bryant of the 4th Battalion as previously reported “missing” now reported POW.

Lamsdorf was the largest camp holding British prisoners. At its peak in 1944 it held 10,000 British prisoners, with a further 9,000 in the 235 work camps or Arbeits Kommandos, attached to the main site. Lamsdorf had been a POW camp in the First World War, and a few unfortunates served time there in both world wars. When men first arrived there in 1940, it was dilapidated with no recreational or sporting facilities, and its vast size and location amid the industrial coal-mining region of Silesia was a depressing experience. German discipline was harsh, but the wooden buildings and facilities were so run-down that Lamsdorf had the reputation of being “ the prison camp from hell.” The arrival of Red Cross parcels began to make life more bearable, and good order was upheld by energetic British camp leadership. Theatrical, artistic and educational activities were encouraged by the Germans from the large pool of talent which existed in the camp. Eventually there were also surprisingly good medical facilities at the main camp, with a Lazarette or hospital headed by a German Army doctor and staffed entirely by Allied medics.
However basic services remained poor, with accommodation, sanitation, clothing and blankets in bad shape. This was exacerbated when overcrowding became acute, in autumn 1943, when the camp was absorbing British and Italian prisoners transferred from Italy following the Italian armistice. An epidemic of dysentery was feared and the authorities were threatened with a mass outbreak of typhus. Something had to be done amid protests from the British camp leaders and the Swiss Protecting Power, and a more dynamic camp commandant was installed. The camp was divided into two at the end of December 1943. Lamsdorf was renamed Stalag 344, and many prisoners were transferred to a new camp at Teschen, which took the old name of Stalag VIIIB. Conditions improved at Lamsdorf, although the underlying problems of poorly constructed buildings and sanitation remained throughout the war.

As the Russians advanced from the east in late 1944, the Lamsdorf camp was evacuated by the Germans and the surviving POWs that were able to walk, force marched west in the Long March of the bitter winter of January 1945, before the advancing Red Army eventually liberated the camp on 17/03/1945. We have no record of Private Bryant escaping from the Death March west. Many men succumbed to the winter and fell by the wayside, and some managed to break away from the poorly guarded groups of prisoners, but it was a risky thing to attempt in enemy-occupied country, with little food,poor equipment and clothing in the depths of winter. The prisoners were eventually liberated by American soldiers advancing from the south-west.

In the new Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock, which was opened by the Princess Royal in 2014, there is a permanent gallery dedicated to Prisoners of War at Home and Abroad, highlighting two very different experiences during the Second World War with personal accounts from British and German servicemen forced to live far from home and family and how they coped with life “behind the wire.” The experience draws heavily on the fate of the 4th Battalion at Cassel, and includes the story of RSM Ted Hawtin of the 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion who was captured at the fall of Hazebrouck, coincident with the action at Cassel, and who escaped and made a successful home run from Thorn POW camp to England via Sweden in January 1944.

The Friends of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry have organised several battlefield tours to visit the actions by 145 Brigade and in 2006 they erected a commemorative plaque in the Grande Place in Cassel beside that of the Glosters. The ceremony was attended by some of the surviving members of the 4th Battalion, who would have been known to Private Bryant.

The Research Panel, the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *