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Second World War and Palestine – Irish Guards (Prisoner of War at Boulogne 23rd May 1940)


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Second World War and Palestine – Irish Guards (Prisoner of War at Boulogne 23rd May 1940)

1939-45 Star; 1939-45 War medal; General Service medal, clasp, Palestine 45-48, 2718873 GDSM. W. Rowan. I.G. (mounted as worn)

Copies of newspaper articles confirm that Cpl William Rowan of the Irish Guards was a Prisoner of War. One includes a group photograph sent into the newspaper by Mrs Rowan of Belfast, which includes William Rowan and confirms he was Irish Guards, Anti Tank corps, captured 23rd May 1940 at Boulogne

The Prisoner of War roll confirms the above, and his POW no 4508, he was held at Stalag 8B at Teschen, Ciezy, Poland

Upon the outbreak of war in September 1939, both battalions of the Irish Guards were based in the United Kingdom.

In May 1940, the 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards deployed to the Hook of Holland to cover the evacuation of the Dutch Royal Family and Government. The battalion returned to the United Kingdom the day after the evacuation, but had only a short respite, for just a few days later they, along with the Welsh Guards, crossed over to the northern French port of Boulogne, reaching the town on 22 May. Their orders were to defend part of Boulogne during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the overwhelming and inexorable advance of the Germans. The Guards stoutly defended their area of responsibility from better-equipped German forces, repulsing a number of German attacks on the 22nd, but on the morning of the 23rd, superior German forces attacked the battalion and the Guards suffered very heavily. Later that day the battalion was evacuated from Boulogne, being the last to leave and having fought valiantly while awaiting evacuation.

OPERATIONS IN BOULOGNE THURSDAY 23RD MAY, 1940.(Taken from a report on the operations of 2nd battalion irish guards in the boulogne area from Tuesday  1st May, 1940 to Thursday 23rd May, 1940.)

Battalion Headquarters stood to from 02.30 hours to 04.30 hours, as it was felt that the enemy would most probably renew his attack at about this time. However, he did not do so until about 07.30 hours. On this occasion the attack again started on the front of No. 1 Company, but quickly spread to that of No. 4 Company, with particular reference to the Platoon holding the high ground near the reservoir and trigonometrically point. This platoon was commanded by Lt. Reynolds, and its position had already been rendered somewhat precarious by the destruction of No. 1 Company’s forward platoon, which had been in position immediately to its left.

The attack was accompanied by heavy shelling, both from guns and mortars, and this shelling, taking it by and large, went on almost without cessation throughout the day. Tanks were employed, and were instrumental in finally defeating the extremely gallant resistance which was put up by Lt. Reynolds’ platoon.

The situation at 09.00 hours was that No. 1 Company had withdrawn with Company Headquarters and all the men they could collect from the forward platoons to the centre of Outreau village, where they took up an invaluable position covering the road leading down the hill into Boulogne, and the road leading to Battalion Headquarters. Before this withdrawal had taken place, two events had occurred. The first had been the order to the Carrier Platoon to move forward from their position in the village to reinforce No. 1 Company. In carrying out this order, it appears that Lt. H.S. Leveson moved forward himself with one section of the carriers and that his appreciation of the situation led him to the conclusion that he could best carry out his task by moving towards the area held by Mr. Reynolds on the left of No. 4 Company’s Sector. I am of the opinion that he was entirely right in his decisions, thought in the event, and perhaps fortunately, it seems that he was unable to move forward with more than the section he had with him at the time he went up to make his reconnaissance.

At or about 08.45 hours Capt. L.D. Murphy, M.C., Commanding No. 4 Company, reported that he thought it would be best if Lt. Reynolds’ platoon were withdrawn to the southern outskirts of Outreau village. I acquiesced in his opinion, and instructed him to get the platoon back. Capt. Murphy accompanied by Capt. P.F.I. Reid, made the most strenuous efforts to get in touch with Mr. Reynolds, but owning to the great volume of fire which the enemy were bringing to bear on the platoon, and owing also to the fact that the platoon was by then almost entirely surrounded, he found himself unable to reach them. There is no doubt whatsoever that no-one at this time could have reached that platoon area alive.

At about 09.15 hours, Officer Commanding 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, accompanied by Lt. John Marnan, Signalling Officer, 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, visited Company Headquarters of No. 4 Company. Instructions were given to Capt. Murphy to throw back his left flank in order to prevent possible enemy penetration between the position held by No. 4 Company and that then held by No. 1 Company, whose forward posts, it will be remembered, had already been overrun, and destroyed. Further, Capt. Murphy was promised a platoon from No. 2 Company, in order to help strengthen his defensive flank.

The Commanding Officer and Lt. Marnan, having left No. 4 Company’s Headquarters, moved direct to No. 2 Company, where they saw Capt. Madden. The reinforcements of one platoon for No. 4 Company was ordered to proceed and was shown exactly where to go.

At approximately 10.00 hours, No. 4 Company was forced to withdraw from the southern outskirts of Outreau village to a line running level with Battalion Headquarters. No. 2 Company on the right of No. 4, conformed to this move. No. 3 Company on the extreme right of the Battalion, still continued to maintain their original position. Thus, at this time, the line ran from the post held by No. 1 Company in the village of Outreau itself, covering the road down the hill to the quay, and the road leading to Battalion Headquarters, through some fields which gave a field of fire of some 150 yards on to the northern exits from Outreau, and thence to the original position held by No. 3 Company.

At about this time, Major J.F. Ross was sent back to reconnoitre a further position in rear, for the Companies, while Major Lindsay carried out a reconnaissance for a position behind the Companies which could be occupied by Battalion Headquarters. It was my intention that this new line should be held by three Companies only, and that No. 2 Company should be withdrawn into reserve in order to hold an intermediate position through which any further withdrawal could take place. However, the time in which to organize such a distribution was never really available, and further it had not at this stage been appreciated that Nos. 1 and 4 Companies had already been reduced to almost microscopic numbers.

Companies withdrew to the new position which lay astride the light railway running down through Boulogne at 10.30 hours. Battalion Headquarters followed approximately one hour later, and No. 1 Company moved back from its post in the village somewhere about 11.45 hours.

This post of No. 1 Company had proved invaluable. They had been in close contact with the enemy for nearly two hours at a range of not much more than 30-50 yards. Throughout that time the posts had exchanged bursts of fire one with the other, and all attempts to outflank No. 1 Company’s position had each in turn been defeated. In my opinion, the holding of this post by No. 1 Company, which might quite easily have been somewhat demoralized by the very heavy losses which the Company had suffered, reflects the very greatest credit on Capt. C.R. McCausland and 2/Lt. G.G. Romer, and on the other ranks who held the post. I was very apprehensive as to whether they would be able to withdraw from such close contact without further heavy losses. The fact that they were able to do so shows thar they must have made the fullest and most effective use of the ground.

The position astride the light railway was reached by the bulk of the Battalion between 10.30 and 11.00 hours, and there the Companies remained until approximately 13.00 hours. Within these times the Commanding Officer accompanied by Sir John Reynolds, Irish Guards, the Liaison Officer with Headquarters 20th Guards Brigade, visited No. 3 Company, which held the right of the Battalion Sector, and order them withdraw in order to conform with the new position. 2/Lt. P.D. Lindsay accompanied the Commanding Officer and remained to indicate to Capt. Finlay, O.C. No. 3 Company, the line which he was to occupy. At about 13.00 hours the Battalion withdrew further towards the centre of Boulogne town, moving down what appeared to be a fairly important street with its head and tail protected by Brens and Anti-tank Rifles. It should be noted that during the stand on the railway line, a great deal of firing had taken place, and that when the further withdrawal began, some of the Bren guns were not properly fit for further firing owing in some cases to the heat of the barrels and in others to the dirt which had accumulated in the barrels.

During the withdrawal down the road, fairly severe shelling began, and it soon became apparent that if the Battalion remained in the street, numerous casualties were certain to be inflicted. The order was therefore given for Companies to seek shelter in the houses on either side of the road; that N.C.O’s should be ready in each house to bring out the men the moment orders were issued and that Brens and Anti-tank rifles were to be left protecting the roads in which the Battalion were sheltering, and the roads leading into it. After a short time the shelling ceased and almost immediately afterwards enemy tanks were heard approaching at a very slow rate down the road. It is reported by a P.S.M. that these tanks were preceded by a man dressed in civilian clothes who waved his hands and called out that the tanks were French ones. These tanks were it is thought, mediums, and the hour at which they were first heard was approximately 14.30 hours. There were not more than 5 of them in all. Three or four of them passed down the hill towards the quay, but according to information received later from outside sources they never penetrated on to the quay. The tanks that did not move down the hill remained as look-outs in the street in which the Battalion were sheltering. These latter tanks fired some shots at the doors of the houses in their immediate vicinity, but it is not known that any casualties were caused by this fire.

It will be appreciated that the Battalion was in the most difficult and perilous situation, and that the only real hope was that the Germans would not search the buildings or continue their firing for any length of time. As events turned out, they did neither, for within a quarter-of-an-hour or so, the vehicle that had passed down the hill into the town remounted it and all the tanks moved away out of the Battalion Area. However, it was not known for certain that some tanks or perhaps infantry accompanying the tanks had not been left in the lower limits of the town, and therefore before committing the Battalion on to a further move through the streets a reconnaissance patrol was sent down to the quay in order to make sure that it was clear. This patrol met Lt. Sir John Reynolds, who reported that no enemy had been seen on the quayside. Whilst this patrol was away, two small tanks re-passed through the area in the Battalion was hidden. These vehicles neither paused nor fired. Lt. J.D. Hornung who saw these tanks, described them as very small indeed, but despite this fact, a direct hit on the back of one of them from an anti-tank rifle seemed to have made no impression whatsoever.

When the news that the quayside was clear reached the Battalion, orders were issued for the final move down, and the Battalion marched with an advance guard, which was ready to drop Brens and anti-tank rifles at any side roads which might be held, and with a rear guard protecting its back. One diversion from the route originally selected had to be made owing to sniping which came from an upstairs window in a side street, but apart from this no difficulties were encountered, and the Battalion reached the line of houses on the quayside at 16.00 hours. The roads leading to the quayside were at once blocked with vehicles and barrels, and the blocks themselves covered by automatic weapons.

Very shortly after reaching the quayside, information reached the Battalion from Brigade Headquarters that the order to evacuate had been cancelled. Though no orders were issued consideration was being given to the patrols which would have had to be sent out into the town again, and to the area in which the Battalion could most profitably spend what would have been a most uncomfortable night.

It is quite clear, now that the events are over, that though the Battalion felt entirely entrapped while in the houses with the tanks cruising outside them, the effect on the enemy of finding the streets deserted when they expected to find them filled with troops, must, to say the least, have been very disquieting. They must, I believe, have felt that they were moving into an ambush of some sort, and that the roads were mined, or that we had anti-tank weapons waiting to deal with them once they had reached a certain point. I am convinced that if some such thoughts had not been in their minds, they would not have been content to pass through the Battalion Area without a rigorous search of the houses accompanied by grenade throwing and firing from the guns carried on the tanks themselves. Had such a search taken place, I do not see how the Battalion could have escaped from the predicament in which they were without severe losses.

The order that the evacuation was not to take place was itself cancelled and in its place, an operation order detailing the manner in which troops were to reach the quayside was issued, though the hour at which the move towards the ships was to start was not stated, as at that time it was not known when ships would be alongside.

At about 18.45 hours a very extensive air battle took place over the town, it being said by some authorities, that over a hundred enemy machines were in the air, with about ten to twenty five of our own fighters. So far as the Battalion was concerned, the results of the air battle were that the enemy machines were kept high in the air, and that no bombs were dropped on or near the houses occupied by Companies.

At about 20.00 hours an order reached the Battalion that evacuation was to take place forthwith; the Battalion was to move to the quayside in groups, and that troops were to embark as and when accommodation on destroyers became available without regard to Companies or Platoons.

The Battalion moved as ordered to the quayside, and the bulk of it sheltered on the lower level of the quay on the inner (southern) side. Two destroyers were allowed to berth alongside the quay without any interference, but as the third destroyer H.M.S. Verity approached the quay, extremely heavy fire suddenly broke out from guns and tanks on the northern side of the harbour. H.M.S. Verity was hit and set alight amidships by the first salvo, and it was clearly the enemy’s intention to sink her while she was still in the narrowest part of the Channel and thus block the way by which other destroyers would have to come in, and by which the destroyers already berthed alongside, would have to steam out. The Commander of the Verity however, completely saved the situation by going astern at full speed, firing with every gun that he could bring to bear, and altogether ignoring the fact that the quicker he steamed the quicker the flames spread. There is no doubt that the Units on the quayside owe a great debt to the Officers and crew of the Verity for their great courage and bold seamanship. The same debt is owed to the officers and crews of the remaining crews who remained alongside the quay embarking wounded and unwounded.

Having failed to sink the Verity, the guns and tanks turned their attention on the quay, and for the next forty five minutes or so, kept up a tornado of fire. The range was so short that direct hits were almost invariably obtained, and had not the quay been extremely well built, there is little doubt that a breach would have been made and that many casualties would have been caused amongst the troops sheltering in close proximity on the lower level. The noise of the direct hits above ones head and the firing from the destroyers close alongside was intense, and provided a great test for the troops who were waiting to embark, and in front of whose eyes lay the decks of the destroyers. In my opinion it says a very great deal for the discipline of the troops concerned that no move of any sort or kind was made towards the destroyers until the order was given to do so, and that when that order was given, the move was carried out slowly and efficiently.

As regards the Naval ships, it is not too much to say that for the second time within ten days the Battalion owed its existence to the magnificent conduct of the Dover Destroyers.

The bulk of the Battalion left Boulogne at about 21.30 hours; reached Dover about midnight; entrained for Fleet and reached Tweseldon Camp at about 6.30 on the morning of May 24th.

Post War (Palestine)

The 1st Irish Guards deployed abroad for the first time since 1944, heading for troubled Palestine to perform internal security duties there against the Jewish insurgency in Mandatory Palestine.[65] Following the British withdrawal from Palestine in May 1948, the battalion moved to Tripoli, Libya for a year before returning home to the UK in 1949.

Condition – GVF