Steve Colling, Corps Historian

The next big event in my cycling calendar is a ride around the battlefields of France with the Royal British Legion (RBL). The group is assembling at Dover with most arriving on Friday for a very early start Saturday morning, 23 July. 

Image shows Historian Steve on his bike, smiling, wearing a red jersey and black helmet and shorts, other cyclists can be seen in the background.

Each rider has paid an entry fee to cover all expenses and the RBL are looking for each of us to get together a further £250 in sponsorship all of which will go towards helping those that need it who serve, or formerly served, with or in the Armed Forces. 

After a very, very early start Saturday morning we take the ferry to Dunkirk. I expect we will then cycle the short distance to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial

"The DUNKIRK MEMORIAL stands at the entrance to the Commonwealth War Graves section of Dunkirk Town Cemetery. It commemorates more than 4,500 casualties of the British Expeditionary Force who died in the campaign of 1939-40 or who died in captivity who were captured during this campaign and who have no known grave." - CWGC Website

About a hundred REME soldiers who are buried in France are commemorated on the CWGC website. I hope to gather photographs of REME graves at every opportunity during the ride and in due course the Museum Remembrance database will be updated to include the images on the electronic display. 

There are two REME names on the Dunkirk Memorial:

  • Craftsman Snell, age 28, from Jersey, serving with 5 Vehicle Repair Depot, died on 15 September 1944
  • Craftsman John Torrance, age 26, died on 15 February 1945

The question is, why are they listed amongst the fallen on a memorial to those who died during 1939-40?

After a short ceremony we head south passing through Hazebruck (a familiar name) and possibly with a brief stop at Chocques CWGC Cemetery; a relative who served in the South Staffordshire Regiment died on the Somme and is buried there. We overnight at Bethune and then on Sunday take a circuitous route via the Canadian Memorial at Vimy and Armentieres to Ypres. The final day takes us back to Dunkirk and home.

Image shows a square silver medal with the Vimy Memorial cast in metal, pale blue ribbon is visible at the top.

Participants 2022 Medal – The Design Based on the Vimy Ridge Memorial

Having cycled to Paris with the Royal British Legion four times now, this will be my first fundraising outing with them to Ypres. So I’ve exhausted the patience of friends, family and the staff at the REME Museum and now need to diversify my fundraising efforts. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll reach my relatively modest £250 target but any support you can offer would be very welcome.

If you would like to support Steve on his journey and donate to the RBL, please click the 'Donate' button below. Please note that this link takes you to a JustGiving webpage and has no affiliations with the REME Museum or REME Charity, all proceeds are directed to the RBL.

Donate to the Royal British Legion

15.7.2022


Journey Updates

D-1

Well I’ve done my research – there’s some REME interest but, perhaps surprisingly, no REME graves in France and Flanders along the route; the nearest being at Ostende and Bruges. However, we’re cycling through Hazebrouck and Poperinge; towns which gave their names to REME barracks at Arborfield and Bordon (not Borden – more of that later). We’re not expecting to ride through Bailleul.

The drive down to Dover was the first challenge due to congestion at the port but I arrived in good time to meet with the other cyclists and the crew from the Royal British Legion.

D-Day: Dunkirk to Bethune

Few of the 50 cyclists appreciated the 4am start! But the crossing went to plan and we were soon on the beach at Dunkirk looking out over the mole and listening to Dan, the RBL Historian, tell the story of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation.

Image shows the memorial on Dunkirk Beach with flags behind it

Dunkirk

Unfortunately, we did not stop at the Dunkirk Memorial so there was no opportunity to plant crosses for Snell and Torrence. Their stories will be told in another blog.

We then rode to the Wormhoudt Memorial which I previously visited on the Berlin trip and it was good to see the wreath, laid in May, was still there. Next stop the hill at Cassel which dominates the ground – this was the hill that the Grand Old Duke supposedly marched his men up and down in the late 18th century. Part of the Tour de France route, the cobbles make for a challenging climb (and descent)!

By July 1944 the Allied armies had established itself in Normandy. Progress was slow around Caen but after the breakout, the British Second Army crossed the River Seine at Louviers and Vernon and had a relatively smooth run across France to Amiens, the Somme and on to the Belgian border. XII Corps ran into two fresh German divisions at La Basse-Bethune. The British 53 (Welsh) Division dealt with them. We overnighted at Bethune after riding 116 km on a very warm day.

At the beginning of September 1944, the British Second Army front stretched along a general line between Antwerp and Hasselt. 

As the line of communication lengthened the logistic battle became more intense. With no operational port, and the loss of the American Mulberry at Omaha Beach, everything for the front line had to come ashore at Arromanches and travel up Club Route. Reinforcements, ammunition, rations, petrol and replacement equipment went one way and casualties (manpower and equipment) went the other.  Logistic vehicles covered great distances, consumed fuel in the process and added to the maintenance burden. At its peak there were 6000 ‘A’ (Armoured/tracked) Vehicles and 200,000 ‘B’ (wheeled) Vehicles. So Antwerp was vital to the Allied plan and the offensive which resulted in the Battle of the Bulge was the German attempt to deny the port.

D+1: Bethune to Ypres

It was one of those 'hottest day since records began' days. We cycled south to the Vimy Ridge and the site of the Canadian National Memorial; the design of which was the inspiration for the Pedal to Ypres Medal.

Image shows the Vimy Memorial, which is two white columns with sculpted figures in the middle.

Canadian National Memorial – Vimy Ridge

The site is managed by Canadian National Parks. The memorial was unveiled on 26 July 1936 so we were there a just a couple of days before the 86th Anniversary. For many years the REME operated an exchange programme with the Canadian Forces and some of us had the opportunity to serve with them at the Canadian Forces Base in Borden Ontario; home of the Royal Canadian EME (RCEME) School, (Canadian Forces School of Electrical & Mechanical Engineers (CFSEME). Not to be confused with Bordon, Hampshire where many REME soldiers learnt their trade – Bordon was the home of 1 Canadian Base Workshop during World War 2.

On this particular day of cycling in blistering heat, the focus was on the Commonwealth contribution to the war effort in the Great War.  Our lunch stop was at Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) – the newest CWGC Cemetery which was completed and dedicated in July 2010.  There are 225 Australians buried here. Dan, the historian, told us that the Australian process includes taking DNA samples of newly discovered and reburied soldiers to aid identification.  The process successfully identified the missing brother commemorated at the Brothers in Arms memorial which we saw on the Berlin trip and cycled past again later in the afternoon. 96 of the 225 Australians have been successfully identified using DNA testing.

Image shows rows of white CWGC style headstones and the memorial wall behind.

Tyne Cot – A British Officer Known unto God with poppy cross inscribed 'Unknown but not Forgotten'

From there we cycled to Ploegsteert Memorial (known by Tommies as Plug Street); a memorial to 11,000 members of the UK and South African forces who have no known grave. It lies in an area where just about all Commonwealth servicemen were first introduced to conditions in the front line. The next stop Mesen/Messines and the New Zealand memorial and then Tyne Cot which names another 35,000 soldiers who died on the Ypres Salient and have no known grave.

We eventually arrived in Ypres after riding 130km and in good time for the Sunset Ceremony. The ceremony has taken place every evening since the Menin Gate was unveiled in 1927; including throughout the Covid lockdowns. I met Patrick Buerms, the chairman of the local branch of the Royal British Legion. He presented riders with their participants medal and we attended the ceremony on the 95th Anniversary, to the day, of the unveiling of the memorial to 54,000 Commonwealth servicemen who fell in the Salient and whose resting places are unknown including those whose remains are buried under a headstone inscribed ‘Known unto God’.

D+2 Ypres to Dunkirk

A cooler day of cycling against the wind which some riders found challenging. However, the terrain is relatively flat and we made fair progress back to Dunkirk in time for our ferry. Border checks have changed significantly since Brexit so there was some standing around – something all soldiers will be familiar with! After the crossing, and the chaos at Dover port no longer evident, we managed a quick getaway.

Having completed the event I can honestly say the RBL were fantastic The planning and execution, including the guidance of the red vested team captains, the historians’ explanations, the volunteer medics and the RBL crew that produced lunches and kept water bottles filled throughout the ride made for a safe and memorable experience. Highly recommended!

Updated 26.7.2022