Battle Honour DYLE

Sun, 05/12/1940
BEF units withdrawing through Dyle

DYLEThe Battle Honour DYLE was the first distinction awarded for battles and actions in North-West Europe between 1940 and 1945. DYLE was the opening action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) campaign in Belgium from 10-16 May 1940, and the objective was to halt the German army along the line of the River Dyle. The Battle Honour DYLE is emblazoned on The King's Colour of The Royal Irish Regiment.

On 10 May 1940, the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries, thus ending the period known as the 'Phoney War'. The 2nd Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles, commanded by Lieutenent Colonel F Y C Knox, was in 9 Infantry Brigade/3rd Infantry Division at Lezennes, near Lille in France. That same morning, at 0815 hours, the Battalion's notice-to-move time was reduced to 15 minutes. Following Brigade Orders, 2 RUR moved in the afternoon and crossed the border into Belgium around midnight, arriving at a wood 2 miles west of Louvain (or Leuven) on the morning of 11 May. The Battalion was to be responsible for the defence of the two main routes leading from the east into the city of Louvain on the River Dyle, and the rest of that day was spent in reconnaissances to the east and west of the city.

At 1130 hours on 12 May, the CO, with with his Tactical HQ and A and D Companies, moved into Louvain to occupy prepared defensive positions along the main railway line on the east of the city. This was the first time since 1918 that the 2nd Battalion had deployed and fought as a battalion. Later, Battalion HQ and the two reserve companies (B and C) moved to positions west of the town. The frontage was about 2,200 yards and included the bridge over the main Diest-Louvain road and the bridge on the Tirlemont-Louvain road. Both bridges had been prepared for demolition by the Belgians, but Royal Engineers sappers added additional charges. Majors Reid and Ryland, commanding A and D Companies, rehearsed their Bridge Demolition orders. On the Battalion's left, a platoon position had to perch on top of an embankment where the nearest steel railway line acted as a rifle rest and the only method of access to the position was a robust 24-rung ladder. The location was overlooked by a tall building some 20 yards on the other side of the rails. It came to be known as the Bala-Tiger post as the subalterns who commanded it were in turn Lieutenants Bredin and Tighe-Wood. To the Battalion's right was the 2nd Lincolns and on the left was 7 Guards Brigade. Throughout 13 May, units of the Belgian Army withdrew through the city while 2 RUR improved defences, laid mines and sent out patrols.

The withdrawal of Belgian units and British recce elements along the two routes into Louvain was almost continuous during the morning of 14 May and by 1500 hours all BEF and Belgians units had passed through. The deserted city was quiet for about an hour before two very loud explosians indicated that the bridges had been blown. Shortly afterwards, two Germans on a motorcycle and sidecar slowly rounded a bend in the road and ran into an accurate burst from a Bren Gun. It was the Battalion's first contact with the enemy. By last light that evening the Battalion was in contact all along the railway line as the enemy probed its defences. By midnight several attempts had been made to penetrate the line with each repulsed but a Company Sergeant Major and one Rifleman were reported missing, presumably captured. At 2300 hours it was decided to move C Company (Captain A W Ward) forward to be available for counter-attacks.

On the morning of 15 May, B Company (Lieutenant R A Davis) was also moved to a reserve position in Louvain and Battalion HQ opened in the Town Hall at 0530 hours. Dawn broke with enemy artillery falling on the Battalion's area and after heavy fire the enemy penetrated the position at the railway station. An immediate counter-attack quickly restored the situation and, apart from intermittent shelling and mortaring, the day passed quietly - except at the Bala-Tiger post where there were some short but fierce engagements, mainly using hand grenades. During the late evening, A Company reported that the enemy was infiltrating along the boundary with 1st Grenadier Guards. Although there was some confused fighting throughout most of the night, the situation was restored by dawn on 16 May.

In the railway station, 2 RUR held the entrance, together with subways and one platform, while the enemy held the other platform 25 yards away. Lieutenant Garstin would dart up from a subway, fire a burst from his Bren Gun and then dash away again - only to reappear elsewhere repeating the same action. The enemy held a high embankment and the houses on top of it. Other Germans took up positions behind the railway wagons at a point where there were five or six sets of rails. From this cover they threw grenades, sniped, and directed machine-gun fire, which smashed the glass roof of the railway station, showering splinters onto the Riflemen below. German machine-gun fire penetrated down the boulevard leading to the station and on one occasion both Lieutenants Garstin and Bredin's groups were completely cut off. However, the supporting artillery, 7 Field Regiment, and the Battalion's mortar platoon, directed by OPs in buildings overlooking the railway line, were both quick and accurate when responding to targets called. The mortar platoon, firing from the centre of Louvain, was at its maximum range of 1,600 yards. The enemy, after heavy artillery preparation, penetrated the station yard, but were evicted within the hour, the Riflemen counter-attacking with grenades and Bren Guns. No further attempts were made by the enemy to advance on this location.

Around 0800 hours the Divisional Commander, Major-General Montgomery, arrived at Battalion HQ to express his appreciation of the way in which the Battalion had occupied and held Louvain. Later in the afternoon, orders were issued for the withdrawal of the Battalion. That evening, the carrier platoon covered the withdrawal by driving the streets to cover any noise made by the withdrawing companies. By 2230 hours the last positions were vacated and the long march began. There was no follow-up by the enemy and a last glance back at Louvain from the hills to the west, showed nothing on that dark, still, summer's night, except the occasional artillery round bursting inside Louvain. There was no sign of any fires burning, contrary to the subsequent German claim that British troops had set fire to the University Library before their departure. By 0600 hours on 17 May, the Battalion was passing through Brussels after what proved to be a very tiring night march.