Information for Veterans and their families

Dai Tilley


By Captain P.R.J.TILLEY
Former Welsh Guards

On 9th May 1940, I was a Guardsman cheerfully proceeding on Whitsun leave to Cardiff. Suddenly the train was halted just outside Newport. MPs came aboard and inspected our leave papers and ID. They ordered me along with my equipment to the train's rear carriage. In those days, due to the threat of invasion we took our full battle equipment and ammunition everywhere. Only other Welsh Guardsman joined me in the carriage.

Finally our carriage was disconnected from the main train and we moved back from where we had come, receiving no explanation for the change in plan. Our families were waiting in Cardiff, but that was the way during the war; it was accepted without complaint.

Many hours later we arrived in Tunbridge Wells and were taken by truck to the racecourse. There was no accommodation and so we were ordered to sit on the grass and eat some cold combat rations and await orders. Eventually we were joined by more Welsh Guardsmen and Irish Guardsmen too.

That afternoon Sergeant Obie Walker, also from Cardiff, asked me if I liked tulips. I told him they were not really my favourite flowers. He replied "Well, you'd better bloody well learn to like them and real quick, as we're leaving for Holland tonight".

The Germans had invaded Holland that morning and the Dutch had failed to open the dykes and flood the countryside as a defence against armoured attack. The German armoured divisions were meeting little resistance, the Luftwaffe was bombing towns and enemy parachutists were landing.

It was nearly midnight on 11th May when Lt-Colonel Haydon, CO of 2nd Bn Irish Gds, was summoned to HQ 20th Gds Brigade where Brigadier Fox-Pitt told him he was to command a composite battalion which would embark at Dover for Holland on the afternoon of the 12th. A quarter of 2nd Bn Irish Gds had gone on leave and were beyond the reach of telegrams and so a Welsh Gds company, 200 strong commanded by Captain Heber-Percy was placed under command of 2nd Bn Irish Gds. I wondered if we were part of a special reserve to safeguard Royal Families and Heads of Government in Allied Countries? How close I was to the truth became obvious.

Our orders were to secure the dock at Walcheren for our Royal Navy, also to send a rescue party for the Dutch Royal family and British Embassy staff and cover the escape route from The Hague to Walcheren.

We reached Dover on The evening of Sunday 12th and when dark we put to sea on two cross channel steamers escorted by destroyers. The composite battalion now became known as Harpoon Force and spent a thoroughly miserable night on a rolling sea. As dawn broke on Whit-Monday morning 13th we reached the Hook and landed at Walcheren. There was evidence of German bombing everywhere and the fires in burning Rotterdam reddened the eastern sky.

German Stukas then bombed and strafed us. A bullet went right through the butt of my rifle that I had placed on the ground beside the Bren I was firing in a vain attempt to shoot one of them down. During the night Fifth Columnists became active and the bombing and strafing was incessant. We heard that the local Dutch Resistance had executed 35 traitors.

It soon became apparent that, owing to the rapid advance by the Germans, we did not have much time to reach The Hague. The Dutch Royal family and the British Embassy staff had to leave right away if they were to make good their escape.

We knew we had to do everything possible to keep the road to the dock at Walcheren open for them. I was ordered with others to defend a crossroads on the main Walcheren road to the Hague. It was the target of Stukas who dive bombed and machine gunned the area. We also received sniping from nearby houses. The Fifth Columnists also tried to sell us poisoned sweets and cigarettes!

Around midday, the CO was watching our stores being unloaded by sailors who in return loaded on the ships crates full of diamonds from Amsterdam. Suddenly a fleet of long black cars swept down the road to the quay carrying Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands. Capt Halsey, the Senior RN Officer in HMS Malcolm was advised of her arrival and had to be convinced it was the Queen and that he was refering to Princess Juliana when he said "Nonsense, she left yesterday".

The departure of the Queen removed one of the objectives for which the battalion had been landed. At around 18:00 our sentries halted a convoy of cars - it was the Dutch Government followed closely by the Diplomatic Corps. It was hardly thought necessary for the Head of the British Military Mission to say that the situation had seriously deteriorated. One look at the diplomats crowding on to the destroyers made that quite obvious.

However, we were left behind to deal with the enemy. German bombers roared over killing 7 guardsmen and wounding 23. A local doctor treated 3 of the casualties and then, with the best of intentions, drove them to a hospital in The Hague where the Germans captured them. Our future was looking very bleak and we stood-to all night. The 14th May dawned to find the battalion isolated and in an untenable position. We had already witnessed masses of German paratroops landing nearby and the bombing had resumed inflicting more casualties on us.

An endless stream of refugees came from Rotterdam. The Irish Gds padre, Father Stoner described the morning as a confused kaleidoscope of horrors. Some of the refugees were pushing handcarts and prams containing dead children and every now and then a German plane would dive and machine gun the civilian column. A RN officer recorded that it was deliberate and calculated murder. By no stretch of the imagination could the pitiful crowd have been mistaken for armed troops.

We were ordered to patrol the outskirts of Walcheren, engage the enemy and prepare
for some sort of withdrawal - to where, only God knew! I was part of six-man patrol with one Bren and five rifles - not much against German paras with Schmeisser machine guns, mortars and grenade throwers.

The deserted streets were strewn with debris and we could hear sporadic firing. A German mechanised attack was expected from the direction of Rotterdam. We Welsh and Irish Guardsmen had no adequate response to such an onslaught. In spite of the fact we had no Morse lamps or heliographs we managed to contact the Royal Navy at sea. A brave Irish Guardsman climbing to the top of a windmill and signalling in semaphore achieved this.

By now Dutch General HQ had been cut off and Holland was to all intents and purposes in enemy hands. We were ordered back to the dock. We didn't have to worry about reloading the stores as bombing had destroyed them all. We could see the reserve ammunition, so neatly stacked in sandpits, on fire and exploding. The wait for the destroyers became interminable and we were being bombed and strafed constantly. At last a destroyer arrived. A RN officer onboard HMS Whitshed wrote "As each half platoon was detailed, the guardsmen marched down the jetty and on board as if they were parading in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. It was grand to watch them". I personally don't think it had much similarity to Guard Mounting at The Palace! As it was the destroyer didn't tie up alongside the jetty and as she moved slowly back and forth we had to jump from the quay onto her moving deck. Eventually though, our destroyer made for the open channel with its guns blazing at targets ashore and in the air. On the eight-hour crossing to England we were continually attacked by the Luftwaffe. Maybe they thought the Dutch Royal Family was aboard our ship?

At 10pm that night, some 48 hours after we had left England, the Irish Gds composite battalion with our company of Welsh Guardsmen landed back at Dover. We stayed in a rest camp and the Lord Warden Hotel that usually cost 15/- a night B &B. Finally we were driven back to Camberley where the cheers of our comrades in the 2nd Battalion, who had remained behind, proved deeply embarrassing for us. I never did get the leave back that had been so rudely interrupted. The whole episode seamed a dream that 6 days later became a nightmare as we in the 2nd Battalion were despatched to Boulogne - but that is another story!

The Fight for Recognition

Dai has provided me with further documents regarding his fight to get the recognition of the rescue and the appropriate medals given to those involved and their families. Below are some of the documents he has provided to me.

(click to enlarge)
Letter to Krista dated 23rd January 2006
Details of Operation Harpoon, 9th May 1940
Letter from Minister of Defence, Netherlands dated 26th November 2002
Letter from Minister of Defence, Netherlands dated 11th March 2003
Letter from Dai to the Minister of Defence, Netherlands (undated) referring to letter dated 11th March 2003 
Invitation to Lunch with the Ambassador of the Netherlands on 14th June 2001 March 2003
 Correspondence with the Imperial War Museum Archivist, Dr Simon Robbins on 21st October 2003 and 3rd February 2004 
 Dai Tilley  

Here is a link to the "Gift of Tulips" festival held in Ottawa, Canada with the incorrect information that Dai talks about regarding The Sumatra.

Dai also refers to the fact that decorations were not allowed to be awarded to personnel in the service of the British Government by a foreign power and yet on the Winston Churchill website it clearly states that he received "Knight Grand Cross, Order of the Lion of the Netherlands, Holland, May 1946."

This information was provided to me by Jim Wicketts and Dai Tilley.

Were you a member of the force who took part in this historic rescue? If so, please do contact me so I can add your details and memories to this remarkable story.

I have heard from Dan who's grandfather, Clixby Fitzwilliams, was also a part of this rescue. If you know of Clixby, please do get in touch with me.

I have heard from Dianne who's father, Leslie Crompton Price, was also a part of this rescue. If you know of Leslie, please do get in touch with me.