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Facing Dunkirk: Our OCs By Rachael Merrison (College Records & Heritage Manager)

On land, the situation looked bleak for Allied troops and two of our OCs faced daunting odds in one small French town. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather (both OCs) 24-year-old John Robin Gregson (Xt, 1934) had entered Sandhurst straight out of College. In 1939, as part of the British Expeditionary Force, he was deployed to the continent with the Durham Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion, but by May 1940 they were falling back as the Germans advanced. The 2nd Battalion were eventually evacuated from Dunkirk, but sadly, without Gregson, who died on 26th May of wounds sustained at StVenant near Merville. The death toll also included OCs with far more extensive military experience; with the fighting at StVenant also claiming the life of 44-year-old Herbert Berkeley Harrison (S, 1914). Despite his long service throughout the First World War, he was killed in action on the 27th of May. He was just one of approximately 1,200 men who died serving with the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the war. Barricades Elsewhere, as troops were attempting to reach Dunkirk, men were working to facilitate the retreat: Gerald Wilson French (OJ & H, 1935), serving within the Gloucestershire Regiment, along with the 2nd Battalion, the 4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, helped form a defensive screen around Dunkirk.

The Memorial Boards in College Dining Hall commemorate the OCs who died during the Second World War From 27th May 1940 the British successfully held the town of Cassel for three days, by barricading the narrow streets and setting up anti-tank guns, but they still suffered devastating attacks from the German air force and ground troops. Although most of the troops were killed or captured by the Germans (Gerald Wilson French died on 29th May) their action stalled the enemy advance during the evacuation; a major accomplishment. However, once troops had retreated and managed to reach Dunkirk there was still no guarantee of rescue; the transfer of thousands of waiting men to variously sized vessels would have been slow and the beaches offered little cover. The first full day of Operation Dynamo was 27th May and involved eight destroyers, one cruiser and over twenty additional craft. By 31st May, following a call for aid, almost 400 small boats had volunteered to participate, but were hampered by the Luftwaffe who bombed the town, dock installations and cut off the town's water supply. Approximately one thousand civilians were killed in addition to the military casualties, but tens of thousands of men did manage to escape (although, depending on the route taken by their vessels across the Channel, they still faced bombardment from on-shore batteries, mines, surface vessels, submarines and the Luftwaffe). The evacuation efforts continued until early June and fortunately, according to our current research, no OCs then serving in the Royal Navy were killed as a direct result of the Dunkirk evacuation.

The air battle The same cannot be said for OCs involved in the conflict from the air; pilots faced the Luftwaffe, in addition to risking a crashlanding in the Channel should their aircraft run out of fuel during the crossing, a danger dramatically highlighted in Nolan’s Dunkirk. Maxwell Charles Pearson (OJ & Xt, 1934) was one such Flight Lieutenant who took part in the air operation over the Belgian Coast. Before the war he'd had success at College, coming 2nd in the Challenge Cup for Sports, and had left with a good record to train at RAF College Cranwell in 1935. He'd also known John Gregson particularly well: both were made House Prefects in 1934 (their last year in Christowe). Now fighting for King and country, his objective was to protect the exposed troops as they lined up awaiting transport. By 27th May 1940 the RAF could claim over 30 kills while losing just 14 aircraft, but unfortunately, despite his prewar training, one of those lost aircrafts was piloted by Pearson. Over the course of the Second World War, over 350 OCs died during their service in the army, navy and air force, but their contribution has not been forgotten, particularly not by those who survived. The sacrifice they made is commemorated in our College Dining Hall (with the Memorial Boards installed in 1950), and we look forward to the continued retelling of their stories by film-makers, authors and many others, to pass on our shared history to the pupils entering College today. ■

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With Christopher Nolan's recent critically acclaimed film Dunkirk hitting the headlines and bringing home the sheer terror many of the soldiers would have faced, we thought we’d take the opportunity to investigate and share the hardships that some of our OCs experienced during that harrowing episode. Code named Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 has been retold and commemorated innumerable times. Surrounded by German troops, the British Expeditionary Force, and the French and Belgium armies were at breaking point and were forced to evacuate from the harbour and beaches of Dunkirk in an operation from 26th May to 4th June 1940.

Profile for Cheltenham College

Floreat 2018  

The Cheltonian Society Magazine with articles from the full range of Society members, from pupils to parents, OCs and staff.

Floreat 2018  

The Cheltonian Society Magazine with articles from the full range of Society members, from pupils to parents, OCs and staff.