- Name: The Honourable Christopher FURNESS
- D.O.B: 17th May, 1912
- D.O.A: 17th May, 1940
- D.O.D: 24th May, 1940
- Award: Victoria Cross
- Occupation at time of action: Lieutenant, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards
- Book: The Complete History - Volume 3
The Second World War 1939 - 40
On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. In the previous year Germany’s annexation of Austria and the Czech Sudetenland had been condoned by Britain and France but Poland presented a more serious problem as both had pledged to support the Poles should they be attacked. Attempts to halt the invasion failed and on 3 September Britain and France declared war on Germany. Although hostilities at sea began immediately with German attacks on both the Royal Navy and the merchant navy, on land there was until April 1940 a period which came to be known as the ‘Phoney War’. Indeed, the first British Army death did not occur until December 1939, and the first British civilian was killed as late as 16 March 1940. As in the First World War, a British Expeditionary Force had been dispatched to France in the opening months of the war. However, the British and French decided to remain behind the Maginot Line, a fortified defence system along the Franco-German frontier. The Line stopped short of the Ardennes Forest and did not cover the frontier with Belgium. The failure of the Allies to attack allowed the German army to consolidate its conquest of Poland before turning its attention to the western front. In a preliminary move the Germans, anxious to safeguard their supplies of Swedish iron ore transported through the Norwegian port of Narvik as well as to secure submarine bases along the North Atlantic coast, invaded Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940. The Danes, who were effectively defenceless, were forced to surrender the same day, but the Norwegians, though unprepared, resisted valiantly and an Anglo-French Expeditionary Force was sent to assist them. The Royal Navy established initial supremacy at sea but the Germans quickly won control of the air. This enabled German land forces to overwhelm their Allied opponents, who fell back in a fighting withdrawal. This setback was debated in the House of Commons on 7 and 8 May and Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign as Prime Minister. On 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill was appointed to succeed him. The last Allied troops were evacuated from Norway on 8 June. Meanwhile, on 10 May 1940 Germany launched its Blitzkrieg against France and the Low Countries. The Netherlands capitulated on 14 May and Belgian defences at Liège, Maastricht and along the Albert Canal were swiftly overrun. Allied forces had moved forward to try to delay the enemy along the River Dyle Line, between Antwerp and Namur, but to the south-east the Ardennes Forest, which was thought impossible country for tanks, was only lightly defended. This was a fatal miscalculation. Seven German Panzer (armoured) divisions advanced through it. In doing this they by-passed the Maginot Line to the south, while threatening to cut off the BEF from the Channel Ports. From 15 May, the main British army began a series of staged withdrawals to the coast and in Operation Dynamo between 27 May, the day before Belgium surrendered, to 4 June was evacuated from Dunkirk and the beaches of La Panne and Bray Dunes, together with members of such French forces as had fallen back there. The Germans occupied Paris on 14 June and on 22 June 1940 the new French premier, Marshal Pétain, signed a humiliating armistice which placed all of northern and western France under German rule, leaving what was, in effect, a puppet government to administer the south, including the Mediterranean coast, from Vichy. Following the British Government’s rejection of his offer of terms, on 2 July 1940 Hitler ordered preparations to begin for Operation Sealion, the seaborne invasion of England. In order for this to succeed Germany needed to secure control of the skies. The Battle of Britain began. In July and early August the Luftwaffe attacked shipping convoys in the Channel and along the East Coast. Then, on ‘Eagle Day’, 13 August, its tactics altered, with strikes against RAF airfields in southern England. A further change took place on 7 September, when the Germans launched the Blitz on London, subsequently extended to other strategic and industrial targets. However, despite these offensives, the Germans failed to gain the air superiority needed for the invasion of Britain and Operation Sealion was postponed. The disintegration of the French army in the face of the German advance had led Italy to declare war against the Allies on 10 June 1940 in the hope of securing major territorial gains in any subsequent peace treaty. This immediately placed at risk the strategic British base of Malta and meant that British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean would be challenged by the Italian navy. In August 1940 Italian forces in Ethiopia invaded and annexed British Somaliland. Meanwhile they had also begun to encroach on the Sudan. More seriously, in North Africa, on 13 September 1940 Marshal Graziani invaded Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya. He was easily repulsed in early December and by 22 January 1941 British forces had reached Tobruk, threatening to expel the Italians from North Africa.
Lieutenant the Honourable C Furness was in command of the Carrier Platoon, Welsh Guards, during the period 17th-24th May, 1940, when his Battalion formed part of the garrison of Arras. During this time his platoon was constantly patrolling in advance of or between the widely dispersed parts of the perimeter, and fought many local actions with the enemy Lieutenant Furness displayed the highest qualities of leadership and dash on all these occasions and imbued his command with a magnificent offensive spirit During the evening of 23rd May, Lieutenant Furness was wounded when on patrol but he refused to be evacuated By this time the enemy, considerably reinforced, had encircled the town on three sides and withdrawal to Douai was ordered during the night of 23rd-24th May. Lieutenant Furness’s Platoon, together with a small force of light tanks, were ordered to cover the withdrawal of the transport consisting of over 40 vehicles. About 02 30 hours, 24th May, the enemy attacked on both sides of the town At one point the enemy advanced to the road along which the transport columns were withdrawing, bringing them under very heavy small arms and anti-tank gun fire. Thus the whole column was blocked and placed in serious jeopardy Immediately Lieutenant Furness, appreciating the seriousness of the situation and in spite of his wounds, decided to attack the enemy, who were located in a strongly entrenched position behind wire. Lieutenant Furness advanced with three Carriers, supported by the light tanks At once the enemy opened up with very heavy fire from small arms and anti-tank guns The light tanks were put out of action but Lieutenant Furness continued to advance He reached the enemy position and circled it several times at close range, inflicting heavy losses All three Carriers were hit and most of their crews killed or wounded. His own Carrier was disabled and the driver and Bren gunner killed. He then engaged the enemy in personal hand-to-hand combat until he was killed His magnificent act of self sacrifice against hopeless odds, and when already wounded, made the enemy withdraw for the time being and enabled the large column of vehicles to get clear unmolested and covered the evacuation of some of the wounded of his own Carrier Platoon and the light tanks.