Battle Honour ST. OMER-LA-BASSEE

Thu, 05/23/1940

The Battle Honour ST. OMER-LA-BASSEE is emblazoned on The King's Colour of The Royal Irish Regiment and was awarded for an action during the withdrawal to Dunkirk.

The 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers (1st Faughs) moved from Belleghem and arrived in La Bassée on 21 May 1940, where its parent 25 Brigade's mission was to line the Béthune-La Bassée canal along the north bank and face the heavy fighting to the south. The 1st Faughs' position was on the Brigade’s forward right, covering a frontage of some 1,100 yards, with the 7th Queen's to its left. The canal was an obstacle to any German advance, and its bridges had been prepared for demolition. However, there were barges moored so dense on certain stretches that they offered German infantry a 'footbridge' where they could leap from one to another and cross the canal. That day, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel G F Gough MC, adjusted his defensive positions, allocated tasks, and directed the companies to dig forward and alternative positions.

Preparations continued throughout 22 May and 'reinforcements', consisting of a mixed British cap badge group of 90 formed as a composite company, plus a company sized group of French survivors from the fighting to the south, added to the Faughs’ overall fighting strength. The 23 May was spent setting fire to and destroying the barges. The Faughs by that night were ready to receive the enemy who were now closing in. At first light on 24 May, the Germans suffered heavy casualties when they attempted to rush the bridge to Essars, which the Faughs then blew. The next day the fighting intensified as the enemy fired artillery and mortars along the Battalion's front, but the Faugh companies were well dug in and the remaining bridge was blown. Around 1030 hours a German motorized column approached the demolished bridge:

'18 Platoon held its fire until German vehicles had piled up on their motor cyclists who had been brought to a halt by the unsuspected sight of the demolished bridge. When a nice bunch had developed 18 Platoon let fly with everything that it had. Germans fled from their vehicles to cover, but those in front were cut to ribbons. Survivors, and those from the rear who entered the houses near the road, were engaged and given no respite by P.S.M. Gray with our one 3"Mortar.'

By 2100 hours the Faughs had sustained 35 casualties from determined German attacks and long periods of artillery and mortar fire. Around 0700 hours on the morning of 25 May, German artillery and air attacks thwarted attempts to hand over C Company's positions to the French, and for C Company to relieve D Company. Instead, the French moved in on either side of D Company, effectively reinforcing their position while the enemy was engaged by supporting field artillery; as night fell, D Company was still holding firm. However, the Germans continued to attack elsewhere and the situation deteriorated when contact with the composite company was lost, a platoon position was overrun and there was an attempt to outflank A Company. The Faughs should have been relieved that evening by a battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

But the 1st Faughs were unable to hand over any forward positions until daybreak on 26 May with one of A Company's platoons, led by 2nd Lieutenant M G Johnson, eventually having to fight its way out after last light that night. Meanwhile, during that day, the rest of the Battalion marched 8 miles north-east of Béthune to Rouge Croix where the CO was told that he was immediately to send to Dunkirk, for embarkation to England, a cadre of six officers and six warrant officers. The implication for the overall situation was obvious. The CO was then ordered to face the Battalion west in a position along the Canal de la Lawe and prepare to engage enemy columns striking north towards Hazebrouck.

The fighting in the areas from St Omer to la Bassée, along with the fighting at the Ypres-Comines Canal, contributed to the success of the eventual evacuation at Dunkirk. This Battle Honour was awarded for actions during the period 23-29 May 1940 and was emblazoned on The King's Colour of The Royal Irish Fusiliers, now carried forward on The King's Colour of The Royal Irish Regiment.