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“We shall fight on the beaches…..” : Dunkirk and the Manchester Regiment:

How often has the phrase ‘Dunkirk spirit’ been mentioned in the media during the last few weeks in association with the coronavirus pandemic?  It is a term used to describe people joining together in the face of adversity. 

But where did this expression come from? 

It is a reference to the daring evacuation of 338,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during the Second World War using 700 British vessels many of them civilian owned. They became known as the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’. This activity took place between the 26th May and 4 June 1940 meaning that 2020 marks 80 years since this event.  As with VE Day due to the current pandemic commemorative events have been postponed or cancelled but it is important that we do not forget what happened 80 years ago on those beaches and how things could have been very different…
Credit: Imperial War Museum. The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940 by Charles Ernest Cundall. This painting shows the last day of evacuation where troops are being taken off the shore whilst under attack. This painting was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee soon after the event and shown at the National Gallery. It became a propaganda image for British endurance and courage.


What were the events that led to the evacuation?

On 10 May 1940 Hitler ordered the invasion of France and Belgium and by 20th May German troops had reached the English Channel. The Allied governments underestimated the strength of the German forces and before long the Allied forces had retreated to the harbour and beaches of Dunkirk where they were trapped and effectively became a ‘sitting target’. To try and get some of the troops to safety Churchill started ‘Operation Dynamo’ resulting in destroyers and transport ships being sent to help evacuate the troops. Fortunately and for several reasons the Germans stopped their advance for three days which gave the Allies more time to organise the evacuation. Despite fire from German fighter planes miraculously 338,000 troops were rescued by 700 boats of all shapes and sizes arriving from the British coast many of which were privately owned. These included fishing boats, fire boats and life boats. The large ships struggled in the shallow waters so the smaller vessels therefore were vital to get the troops from the beaches to the large ships.  It meant however that all heavy equipment had to be left in France including 440 British tanks.

In describing the success of the operation to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940 that Winston Churchill made his famous “we shall fight on the beaches" speech.

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender ...[“

How was the Manchester Regiment involved?

Three battalions of the Manchester Regiment which was part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), were involved with the defence and evacuation at Dunkirk.  These were the 2nd, 5th and 1/9th battalions which involved about 1500 men in total. The BEF put up a stubborn defence and were engaged in fighting around many rivers, towns and villages as they were forced to retreat. This included the defence of the River Dyle, Bergues Canal and Vimy Ridge (where the Manchesters also fought in World War One). The 2nd Manchesters took heavy casualties with 380 men being evacuated while another 155 stayed behind to cover the retreat. These men were either killed or captured by the Germans. The 5th and 1/9th were also evacuated but only suffered light casualties.
During the retreat two soldiers of the 2nd Manchester Battalion, John Haywood and Walter Branchflower, were captured by the SS Totenkopf Division along with 95 men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment. The group had become isolated and were occupying and defending a farm house in the village of Le Paradis. After running out of ammunition they surrendered and were murdered by machine gun fire on 27 May 1940 with only two injured men surviving. After the war the German commander in charge Fritz Knochlein was convicted by a war crimes court and executed in 1949. This event was known as Le Paradis Massacre.

Who were the Manchester Regiment soldiers killed in Le Paradis Massacre?:

John Thomas Haywood (1909 – 1940)
Credit :
John was born in 1909 and lived in the Manchester or Salford area. His father’s name was George and his mother’s name was Sarah Ellen. John’s wife was called Doris but further details are not known.
It is not known when exactly John joined the army but he did so as a private. He was placed into the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment and was given the service number of 3525437. He served in France during World War Two and was involved with the retreat to Dunkirk where he was captured. Aged 31, he was killed by the Germans during the Le Paradis massacre on the 27th of May 1940. He is buried at Le Paradis War Cemetery in Lestrem. There are 115 men buried there and only two are from the Manchester Regiment. The name of the other man is Walter Branchflower.

Walter Branchflower (1919 – 1940)
Walter was born in 1919. His place of birth and where he lived is unknown.  His father’s name was George and his mother’s name was Ellen.
It is not known when exactly he joined the army. He joined as a private but was promoted at some point to Lance Corporal. He was given the service number of 3528114 and placed into the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. He served in France in World War Two. He was captured during the retreat to Dunkirk. Aged 21, he was killed by the Germans during the Le Paradis massacre and is buried at Le Paradis War Cemetery in Lestrem.


Manchester Regiment collections:

There are several items related to the action at Dunkirk in the Manchester Regiment collections held by Tameside Museums.
Frank George Middleton (1918 – 40):
Frank was born on the 12th December 1918 and the family lived in Balby, Doncaster. Frank married Marjorie and they lived at 49 Thomson Avenue in Balby. Frank worked as a railway porter.
It is not known when exactly Frank joined the army but he did so as a private. He was placed into the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. He was given the service number 3532803. There are little details of his actions during the war. Frank was killed on the 22nd of May 1940 during the retreat to Dunkirk. Frank was aged 21 at the time. He is buried at Bruyelle War cemetery in Belgium along with 129 others. Of those only five are from the Manchester Regiment.  His grave marker is in the collections of the Manchester Regiment.

Caption: Bruyelle Cemetery. Image courtesy of Tameside Local Studies & Archives
George Robert Sneyd (1906 – 40)
Grave marker for Sergeant George Robert Sneyd
George was born in 1906 in Patricroft which is in Salford. His father was called Francis Joseph and his mother was called Frances.  He had 3 siblings; Harriet Ann, Frank and Thomas.  In 1911 they also had a boarder called Thomas Wolfenden who was 29 and worked as a pit sinker.  They lived at 2 South King St in Patricroft.
It is not known when exactly he joined the army but he did so as a private. He was placed into the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment and given the service number of 3519492. He served during the retreat to Dunkirk by which time he was a sergeant. Details of his actions during the retreat are not well known. It is known that he was killed during the retreat aged 34 years old. He is buried at Bruyelle War Cemetery along with 129 others. There are five Manchester Regiment soldiers buried there.


Private Alfred Yates:
Dunkirk medal belonging to Private Alfred Yates. The Dunkirk medal is an unofficial commemorative medal that was created by the town of Dunkirk to express gratitude for the defence of the town. It was initiated in 1948 and originally only given to French personnel. However from 1970 any Allied member involved in Operation Dynamo was eligible to receive one. It is not recognised as an official medal by the Crown and as such cannot be worn with state issued official medals.

 Alfred Yates (‘Alf’) grew up in Ashton-under-Lyne and by the late 1930s he was married and living at 4, Bradgate Street and working at Guide Bridge railway station.
On the 27th January 1937 he joined the 9th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment which was a unit of the Territorial Army (TA) based in Ashton. This later became a mechanised machine gun battalion using Vickers machine guns supporting infantry battalions. The Vickers guns were operated by teams of soldiers, Alf was team leader and number 1 on his gun with his friend Roy Beeley being his number 3. After initial training Roy and Alf were sent to France and formed part of the BEF. During the retreat to Dunkirk 21 members of the 9th battalion were captured on the 27 May and became Prisoners of War including Alf and Roy. They were put on a barge in Holland and sent to Germany and then Poland where they worked as bricklayers. They were then transferred to present day Gdansk and Malbork in Poland to help with building projects and interred at the POW camp Stalag XX-B.
After the war ended they returned home and stayed firm friends, meeting up regularly.  Alfred’s Dunkirk medal was donated to the Manchester Regiment collections in July 1999.

William Kennedy: (1916 – 2008)
William Kennedy. Image courtesy of Tameside Local Studies and Archives

William (Bill) was born on 5 February 1916 in the United States and brought to Ashton shortly afterwards by his parents who then returned to America leaving Bill with his grandparents. He worked as a pipe insulator and joined the 9th Battalion (a Territorial Battalion) of the Manchester Regiment in 1934.  After training he was sent to France and involved in the action at Dunkirk.  During the retreat to the beaches he spent three days  “either floating in the water or taking cover in any available little hole in the ground to avoid artillery shells and bombs from enemy aircraft”.  He successfully returned to Britain on a small fishing boat. 
After a reorganisation of the army post Dunkirk he spent some time in the 5th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment before returning to the Manchester Regiment in 1942. He joined the 1st Battalion which was another machine gun unit.  The regiment landed at Normandy in July 1944 and was soon involved in action. Bill was involved in the fighting through France and into Belgium, then Germany after the Battle of the Bulge.  When the Germans surrendered on the 7 May 1945 Bill was in Hamburg. He left the army in February 1946 but did not enjoy civilian life. He rejoined the 1st Battalion in 1946 which was by now an infantry battalion. In July 1949 the Battalion returned to West Germany.  Bill was by now a Sergeant. He was involved in fighting in the British colony of Malaya trying to suppress Communist insurgency. Between the late 1940s and November 1951 he was Platoon Sergeant of the Assault Pioneer Platoon. He was also a Platoon Sergeant in S Company.  Being a lot older than the other soldiers he became like a father figure. Bill was promoted to Colour Sergeant in 1955 and also Company Quartermaster Sergeant (CQMS) responsible for keeping the soldiers in his company supplied and equipped. In April 1957 Bill left the 1st Battalion and became Provost Sergeant at the HQ of Hannover District.  He was responsible for administering British units in this part of West Germany. He had to maintain good discipline and order amongst the soldiers. After the merging of the Kings and Manchester Regiments in 1958 Bill became a permanent Staff Instructor to the 9th Battalion (which had not merged) based in Ashton. He organised training for the Territorials and ran the unit whilst they were in their civilian jobs. After 2 years he went to the Army School of Civil Defence in Millom in the Lake District but this closed in October 1962.
By 1963 he had left the army and was in the 9th Battalion as a Territorial soldier.  In 1964 he was Company Sergeant Major of B Company and held this job until the TA was reorganised in 1967.  By 1971 he was caretaker for the 9th Battalion based at the Drill Hall on Old Street. He died on 22 November 2008 at the age of 92.  He wanted his medals to be donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment and they were given on Remembrance Day 11th November 2008.
William (Bill) Kennedy’s medals showing his Dunkirk medal to the right
L to R) 1939-45 Star; France and Germany Star; 1939-45 Defence Medal; 1939-45 War Medal; General Service Medal 1918-62 with clasp 'Malaya'; Efficiency Medal; Medaille de la Fidélité de la Fédération Nationale des Vétérans du Roi Albert I/ Medaille van Loyaliteit van de Nationaal Verbond der Veteranen van Koning Albert I; Dunkirk Medal

John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill (1906-1996):
Jack Churchill. Image courtesy of Tameside Local Studies & Archives

Although there are no items in the collections owned by John Churchill he was in the Manchester Regiment during the Dunkirk military campaign. He was a well-known eccentric character renowned for going in battle with his bagpipes, longbow and Scottish broadsword which earned him the name of ‘Mad Jack’.
John was born in 1906 in Colombo, British Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka).  In 1910 the family moved to British Hong Kong for his father’s work as the Director of Public Works.   John had two siblings called Tom and Buster. They both joined the military with Tom joining the Manchester Regiment and Buster joining the Fleet Air Arm. The family moved around a number of times spending time in Hong Kong and Surrey.
John joined the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment on the 4th of February 1926 and served in Burma until 1932 after graduation from Sandhurst. After leaving the army he became a newspaper editor in Nairobi, Kenya and a male model.  He used his archery and bagpipe talents to play a small role in the 1924 film ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ and appeared in the 1938 film ‘A Yank at Oxford’. He took second place at the military piping competition at Aldershot in 1938 and represented Great Britain at the World Archery Championships in Oslo in 1939.
He re-joined the 2nd Battalion in 1939 with the risk of war on its way and served as the second in command to D company. He served in France during the retreat to Dunkirk and was placed in command of the company due to the commanding officer being wounded.  For his actions in the village of l’Epinette, 27th May 1940, where he held off an attack by the Germans he earned the Military Cross. It is also reported that he used a longbow to kill one of the Germans; however, evidence of this is limited. He successfully managed to retreat to the coast and board a ship back to Britain. There was then a call for soldiers to volunteer for the Commandos. John joined and spent the rest of the war in the Commandos. He stayed in the military and had many other adventures during his army life.
He retired from the army in 1959 with two awards of the Distinguished Service Order.  Even in retirement his eccentricity continued.  He alarmed rail passengers and guards by throwing his briefcase out of the train window on the train ride home each day later saying he was throwing it into his back garden so he didn’t have to carry it home!
He died at home on the 8th of March 1996, aged 89.

Robert (Rex) King-Clark (1913 – 2007)
Rex King-Clark. Image courtesy of Tameside Local Studies and Archives

Churchill’s great friend was Rex (Robert) King - Clark. During his life he was a soldier, pilot, racer, photographer, author and diarist.

He was born on the 27 November 1913 in Byfleet, Surrey.

By 1932 he had joined the army and entered Sandhurst to become an officer. On 2 February 1934 he became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment.  He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion based near York.

He had a passion for racing cars and flying aeroplanes.  He learned to fly and bought his own plane.  In August 1936 he flew it from York to Doncaster with his friend Second Lieutenant Henry Frisby. Rex crashed the plane on landing and Henry was killed.  Rex always blamed himself although he was officially cleared of any responsibility by the authorities. After this event he was given three months sick leave and he spent the time touring Scotland, France and Italy with his friend and ex fellow Officer Jack Churchill. They wore kilts and entertained the locals by playing the bagpipes and Highland dancing.

Rex King – Clark and Jack Churchill. Image courtesy of Tameside Local Studies and Archives

He was promoted to Lieutenant on the 1st February 1937 and transferred to the 1st Battalion. In 1938 he was based in Egypt and Palestine, earning the Military Cross for commanding a ‘Special Night Squad’. 

He left Palestine for Singapore spending 6 months there before returning to the United Kingdom. Rex wanted to be seconded to the RAF but the outbreak of WW2 changed his plans. He fought in the Battle of France after the German invasion and was evacuated from Dunkirk. Rex commanded 2nd Battalion during the Battle of Kohima which was fought on the Burma/India border from April – June 1944

He was promoted to Captain in 1942 and Major in 1947 (although he was already acting in that rank). By mid 1949 he was working at the War Office in London eventually fulfilling his ambition to become a military pilot. In 1952 Rex was sent to Korea to join the British forces involved in the Korean war which had been underway since 1950.  Undertaking several roles he was finally responsible for the administration, discipline and coordination of the supplies for the Brigade.  For this service he was awarded the MBE in 1953. In 1954 he returned to the UK and was second in command of the 1st Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. He retired from the Manchester Regiment with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1958 later working for Calor Gas. He died aged 94 on 30 December 2007.

How are the events at Dunkirk remembered?

Dunkirk War Memorial at Dunkirk Town Cemetery.
Credit: wernervc

The Dunkirk Memorial is at the entrance to the Commonwealth War Graves Section of Dunkirk Town Cemetery and consists of memorial panels, a shrine in the form of a shelter and an engraved glass panel. It commemorates more than 4500 casualties of the BEF who died in the campaign between 1939 – 40 or who died in captivity with no known grave. It was designed by British architect Philip Hepworth and unveiled by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on 29 June 1957.
The glass panel depicting the evacuation was engraved by renowned engraver John Hutton.

The window within the memorial at Dunkirk Town Cemetery. Image courtesy of Tameside Local Studies and Archives
There are several other Dunkirk memorial windows in churches such as St Mary the Virgin and All Souls Church Nottingham and St George the Martyr Church in Ramsgate.

The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships is a group for owners of the vessels involved in the evacuation and was founded in 1965. The Association organise a memorial crossing every 5 years escorted by the Royal Navy. The Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust  was established in 1993 to preserve and restore the remaining little ships.  At least 12 of the original little ships were used in the 2017 film ‘Dunkirk’.
The 1940 Dunkirk Veterans Association was an association of British Service Veterans “who served at Dunkirk and other ports of evacuation between 10 May and June 1940”.  The Association was formed at Leeds in 1953 and reached a membership of 20,000.  It was disbanded on 30th June 2000 after the 60th anniversary commemoration of the group.
Tameside Museums hold the collections of the Manchester Regiment.  For any regimental object enquiries please email The  regimental archives are held by Tameside Local Studies and Archives section. See for more information.
For information about the soldiers whose medals are held in the collections please see

With thanks to Matt Alderson, Alex Leese and Tameside Local Studies and Archives for their assistance with this article.


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