On the 10th May 1940 Hitler’s forces invaded France. The subsequent Blitzkrieg saw his Panzer Divisions traverse Northern France in a matter of ten days to reach the coast.
The British Expeditionary Force as well as a large part of the French Army was trapped within a pocket and forced to retreat on the port of Dunkerque.
For the British this meant not only fighting back from the old battlefields of Ypres and Flanders, but also having to retire from the south along the line of canals connecting Artois to the sea.
Following the forced abandonment of Arras the 2nd Division of the BEF was ordered north to cover the area south of Hazebrouck. Its 6th Brigade included the 1st Bn Royal Welch Fusiliers who were ordered to hold Robecq, Saint Floris and Saint Venant.
On the 24th May the SS-Verfügungs-Division had taken St Venant and then, despite being ordered to halt, continued their advance the following day.
Their occupation of St Venant was short lived because the British 6th Brigade arrived and put them back out of the village, perhaps the first time that the SS had been forced to give up captured ground. In St Venant trenches were prepared with the RWF preparing the outer defences with the 2nd Bn Durham Light Infantry (DLI) and the 1st Bn Royal Berkshire behind them.
The bridge over the Lys river at St Venant was still intact and a highly desirable prize for the Germans who had been repelled almost everywhere along the canal line held by the French and British defenders.
The opponents of the 6th Brigade were the 3rd Panzer Division supported by the motorised SS-Verfügungs-Division of whom the SS Germania Regiment would be greatly involved in the ensuing fight for the village.
The RWF had already come into contact with the SS at St Floris on the 23rd whilst at Robecq a detached Company was surrounded as they tried to defend the three bridges across the La Bassée Canal.
The 3rd Panzers launched their attack from Robecq on the 27th May at 0800 hours accompanied by the SS Germania.
Against the German tanks the British garrison was forced to fight from point to point but they did eventually manage to slow the German advance. However: slow, didn’t mean stop and the pressure continued to build on the bridge’s defenders.
Lt Colonel Harrison of the RWF had moved his HQ back within the cemetery at St Venant, alongside the bridge and only a matter of metres from that of the 2nd DLI. As the day wore on he received the order that his men were to protect the bridge for as long as possible whilst the retreating units crossed over to the far side.
For many of the Durham Light Infantry the order to retire was too late and Colonel Harrison and his group only just managed to scramble away to safety themselves. For the Colonel it was not far enough. Having reached the far side of the bridge he was struck down on trying to leave the cover of a ditch.
Lt Colonel Harrison is buried in Haverskerque British Cemetery a few minutes drive away across the river. (See the link below).
Of the 700 members of the RWF who arrived at St Venant to defend the village only about 80 managed to reach the beachhead at Dunkerque where they were evacuated on the 31st May.
To commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the defence of the village a rather splendid exhibition was put on display by the local historical society ARHAM at La Poudrière in St Venant.
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In May 2000 George Rodgers and his family were in the process of trying to trace the story of his brother Tom who had been killed on the outskirts of the village whilst fighting with the 2nd Bn Durham Light Infantry on the 27th May 1940.
By chance the ARHAM Association were running an exposition about the defence of the village and were able to help the family in showing where he died and being able to state that he had no known grave; having originally been buried as an unidentified soldier.
In 1942 an order from the German administration required the local inhabitants to recover the remains of those who had been buried and move them to the local cemetery at St Venant (where there was already a First World War CWGC plot).
Whilst many were buried without their papers the Germans insisted on the strict detailing of each body. It was with these detailed descriptions of each body and the additional background furnished by George Rodgers that it was possible to state exactly where he died and how.
His unit had been guarding one of the small bridges over the Guarbecque stream three kilometres to the west of the village on the Rue Berthalotte when a tank shell destroyed their position.
Following a long enquiry a headstone has been raised in St Venant Cemetery stating that Tom Rodgers is believed to be amongst those buried there.
From the meticulous descriptions of the bodies recorded by the Germans it is believed that Tom actually lies as an unidentified soldier a few graves away.
In honour of his memory and those of his fallen comrades the Rodgers family unveiled a new plaque outlining the combat on the Guarbecque stream at the bridge where Tom died.
In a simple ceremony the plaque was unveiled by Tom Rodger’s surviving brothers; George and Jim (who had gone on to serve in the army himself).
They were joined by the lady who as a very young child had helped bury Tom at the scene of his death.
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One of the veterans attending the 70th anniversary of the Battle of St Venant was a man who had been there with the 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment.
Les Kerwill had been a lance corporal with his regiment in the second line of defence at St Venant when the Germans finally broke through.
Taken prisoner he was fortunate enough to survive that act — not far away at Le Paradis the SS Germania massacred 97 members of the Norfolk Regiment and there is a certain amount of evidence that some of those who surrendered at St Venant were also summarily executed.
Les was transported to the POW Camp at Beutem in Poland where he saw out most of the war.
As the Russians approached in December 1944 the entire camp was ordered to march back towards Germany. Security was slack and he took the chance to slip away into the void.
Having made his escape he still had over a thousand kilometres of German occupied territory to cross in order to gain his freedom.
Walking in constant snow, hiding in barns and searching for food proved a hard experience and his feet were frostbitten. He was fortunate though that just prior to the commencement of his long ordeal his mother had sent him a set of new boots.
“You couldn’t imagine the snow and ice, the conditions were terrible. I got frostbite in my toes. My army boots were worn out but my mum had sent new ones to the camp. I wouldn’t have made it without them.”
Having reached Bavaria, Les met American troops approaching from the west. His walk to freedom was over.
Seventy years after his capture he was back in France to share a glass (or two) with the villagers whose town he had helped defend.
Apart from the exposition at the Poudrière at La Peylouse and the dedication of the plaque to the Durham Light Infantry, the day was also one of remembering those who had fallen.
In the afternoon veterans and villagers alike paraded to the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ monument at the lock side and Lt Colonel Harrison’s daughter laid a wreath in his and the regiment’s honour.
From there it is only a short walk along the canal bank to the village cemetery and from where the RWF HQ made its final retreat from St Venant.
There are almost equal numbers of First and Second World War dead in the CWGC plots but on this particular day we were there to pay homage to those of 1940.
Poppy crosses were placed on all of the graves; identified and Known Unto God alike.
It is a peculiarly Empire thing that we do not consider our unidentified soldiers as – unknown – as do the other nations. When he gave them their epitaph Rudyard Kipling felt that even if mortals could not identify them, none, regardless of religion, were truly: unknown.
When the villagers were required by the German Administration to re-inter the 1940 casualties into their cemetery each body was examined by German mortuary technicians and great care was taken to note anything that might help identify the soldier.
Something that was noted in a number of cases was that the skulls had been damaged by impact blows from close range.
Along with the testimony of the local inhabitants it is certain that many of those who lie within the cemetery were executed by their SS captors.
It should be noted that some of the very first RWF casualties are buried at St Floris churchyard a few kilometres from St Venant (When leaving the car park turn left for St Floris).
Having paid our respects to the military it was time to remember the first civilian casualties many of whom were children fleeing the invaders.
Struck down by an aerial bombardment a new plaque was unveiled on St Venant’s church wall to commemorate their tragedy.
If visiting the DLI plaque at Rue Berthalotte continue a little further to Guarbecque churchyard there are a number of 1918 burials plus one 1940 RWF burial. The church in itself is very pretty and more than worthy of a few moments of your time.