On Sunday 3rd September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. The formal declaration of war was at 11am when Britain’s ultimatum to Germany expired. On the 9th September 1939 the first troop transport convoys carrying the British Expeditionary Force sailed from Southampton and the Bristol Channel, arriving at Cherbourg the next day and Nantes and St Nazaire two days later. After a month of anxiety, false alarms and uncertainty, Britain settled down to a wartime winter.
By the middle of October 158,000 men of the B.E.F., together with 25,000 vehicles had been taken across the Channel to bolster the French defence. At the same time a general call-up of men over 20 years old was set in motion. At that time there were no plans to conscript younger men. Of course this altered as the war went on. By the end of April, British and French troops were hitting back in the battle for Norway. At the beginning of May 1940 Britain started to withdraw her forces from Norway and by the 6th June the evacuation from Narvic was completed. The German “Blitzkrieg” in Western Europe carried on with the British troops fighting a desperate rearguard action on the French coast around Dunkirk as the German troops finally moved in and surrounded them. Towards the end of May, the port of Dunkirk, through which the British were receiving stores and ammunitions, was being bombed regularly by German aircraft. It was on the 27th May that the Belgian king, King Leopold, capitulated, allowing German forces through Belgian lines to attack the B.E.F. and the French as they retreated towards Dunkirk.
During the retreat to Dunkirk the 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment was fighting a rearguard action when regular soldier Private Fredrick John HUNT, (2nd Wilts) was killed in action on the 23rd May 1940, aged 37 years. He is buried in Rouex Communal Cemetery which is ten kilometres east of Arras, France. He was the uncle of Mrs Ann RUDMAN of Folly Close, Highworth. The 2nd Wilts had landed in France on the 14th September 1939, and had been under warning to go to Norway, but this had been cancelled by the German invasion of the Low Countries on May 10th. During the retreat to Dunkirk the 2nd Wilts were involved in some severe fighting losing over sixty men at this time, some of whom are buried alongside men of the Wiltshire Regt who lost their lives in the 1914-18 war. Then came the miracle of Dunkirk on the 26th May to the 4th June 1940. Trapped on the beaches, strafed by bombs and shells, it seemed they were doomed. But the Navy, using 230 warships of all kinds and supported by over 700 private motor boats and small and large fishing trawlers, sailed in under intense fire and carried 335,000 men off the beaches and back to the coast of Britain. The evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, “Operation Dynamo” ended officially on the 4th June 1940.
When war broke out in September 1939 Sergeant Jack HILL, (who was born and bred in Highworth), was already a serving soldier with the Royal Army Service Corps.
In the years before the war several Highworth lads including Jack were out of work with not much prospect of finding a permanent job. Several of the lads used to meet in “The Elms” recreation ground for a game of football to help pass the time away. On one particular day they all decided to join the Army Service Corps. On the outbreak of war he was one of the first to go to France with the B.E.F.
After a few months of war Jack along with other British servicemen found himself in Dunkirk waiting to be evacuated off the beach. Being one of the lucky ones he finally arrived back home in Britain. After being reorganised he was sent to the Middle East to help fight against Rommel’s Afrika Corps. While carrying supplies through the desert Jack and his mates were completely surrounded by a strong force of German tanks. They were all captured and handed over to the Italian Army and that was the beginning of Jack‘s long imprisonment as a prisoner of war. Eventually he was sent to Germany for imprisonment under the Germans and stayed there until the end of the war. After being released and repatriated he had to report to Stratton St Margaret’s hospital each week for a check-up by a doctor. Like so many POWs he was undernourished and had lost a lot of weight. He was given special food and vitamins to help build up his health again. When he was captured in the desert he suffered wounds to his back and in his later life this caused some discomfort.
At the time of Dunkirk, Peter BARON of Newburgh Place, Highworth was serving in France with the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was wounded on the beach and arrived home wrapped in a woman’s fur coat. Sadly both these war veterans have now passed on.
Before the war there were several local men already serving in the armed forces.
5722881 Quarter Master Sergeant Sydney George DIPPER enlisted into the army at Devizes, Wiltshire on the 23rd April 1927. He served in the Dorset Regiment for twenty four years. Before the war he was with his Regiment in Palestine during the Arab-Jewish troubles. He later served through the Second World War. Afterwards he was a Physical Training and Parachute Training Instructor. He excelled in most sports in which he took part. His home leave, and later his retirement from the army, was in Highworth with his sister Mrs Violet CHESTER of Fairview, Highworth.
317791 Trooper E.E. (Ted) STAPLES, 11th Royal Hussars, (Prince Albert’s Own) was born at Warrens Cross, Lechlade, Gloucestershire, and joined the army in 1934 at the age of nineteen years. He had signed on for twelve years, (six years in, six years out). He was first stationed at Tidworth in the 12th Royal Lancers. He was transferred to Egypt in 1935 to the 11th Royal Hussars. He saw service in Palestine 1936-37 during the Arab-Jewish troubles, for which he gained the Palestine medal. He was due back in England in 1939 but had to stay owing to the outbreak of the Second World War. He was one of the original “Wavells”; 30,000 troops being chased by the enemy backwards and forwards across the Western Desert. At one stage he was missing when the Italians captured an outpost. He saw action in all the battles including Mera, Matruh, Sidi Barrani, El Alamein and Tripoli. He was a member of the Long Range Desert Group who pioneered the art of long-range patrolling in the desert – most of the time behind enemy lines. He was finally posted back home to England in 1943 and was stationed at Barnard Castle, County Durham after eight and a half year’s service abroad. Returning to civilian life after the war was never going to be easy, with no jobs or houses available to settle down. After a couple of temporary jobs, he was employed by the Thames Conservancy. The irony came when he was put in charge of six German prisoners of war. This was to build a ford across the River Coln, (before it joins the Thames), at the Round House, Lechlade, to enable the farmer to drive his tractors across from one field to the other. The ford is still there and in working order to this day. His medals for service were: The Palestine Medal, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, Defence Medal, (Kings Commendation for Bravery), War Medal 1939-45.