He was the elder son of Segar Segar-Owen and Edith Segar-Owen (nee Monks), and elder brother of Godfrey Joscelyn Segar Segar-Owen (K1920-24). After her husband’s death, Mrs. Segar-Owen lived at Ramslade, Bracknell, Berkshire. Segar-Owen rowed in the school IV in 1918, and entered RMC Sandhurst that year. He was a member of the Green Jackets cricket team, and when at home never missed Green Jacket Week.
He entered 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps (2KRRC) in 1919, serving under the name of Owen, and saw service with the battalion in Waziristan between 1919 and 1921. He was promoted Captain in 1929, and from 1930 to 1936 was attached to Eastern Arab Corps, Sudan Defence Force. He married Miss Katherine May Gilchrist Nicolson, of South Kensington, London on June 25th 1936. Nicknamed‘Puffin’ in the battalion, he was promoted Major in 1938, and assigned as OC ‘B’ Company.
By the time of the German invasion of France in May 1940, Segar-Owen was second-in-command of 2KRRC.
In May 1940 he was sent out to France with his battalion in 30 Infantry Brigade to defend Calais. 30 Infantry Brigade consisted of 2KRRC, 1st Rifle Brigade (1RB), the Territorial battalion 1st Queen Victoria’s Rifles KRRC (1QVR); attached to it was 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3RTR). 30 Brigade contained at least ten Wykehamists, with the Brigade commander Brigadier Claude Nicholson (G 1912-1915), who was captured and died in German captivity (see individual entry).
From 2KRRC, apart from Segar-Owen, Wykehamists included 2nd Lieutenant A. Michael Sinclair (I 1931-1936), who was captured, only to be killed in 1944 trying to escape from Colditz Castle; also captured and sent to Colditz (though he went on the run at one point for ten months) was 2nd Lieutenant E. Grismond B. Davies-Scourfield (B 1932-1936).
In 1RB, the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Chandos Hoskyns (A 1909-1912), and 2nd Lieutenant Edward Bird (E 1929-1934) were mortally wounded; Lieutenant Anthony Gerard Hugh Bampfylde (G 1933-1938), 2ndLieutenant Richard Wood (I 1923-1929) and Lieutenant Frederic Athony Vivian Parker (E 1926-1931) were all captured, though Parker was repatriated in 1943. Bampfylde was wounded in an air-raid on May 23rd 1940. In 1QVR 2nd Lieutenant Richard Raikes (H 1922-1928) was killed in action.
The German attack into France earlier that month had forced a wedge between the British Expeditionary Force in northern France and Belgium and the French forces to the south. By May 21st German forces had reached the Channel coast, and the British Expeditionary Force was in imminent danger of annihilation.
German plans were in train to occupy Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk, cutting the retreating British forces off from rescue. The German 1st Panzer Division was ordered to make for Dunkirk. 2nd Panzer Division was committed to the attack on Boulogne, defended by 20 Guards Brigade. Boulogne fell on May 25th, though its defenders had been successfully evacuated by sea. 10th Panzer Division headed for Calais.
2KRRC set sail for Calais on SS Royal Daffodil at 1900 on May 22nd, escorted by two destroyers:
“Two destroyers, my foot.” It was the old familiar voice of ‘Puffin’ Owen. “I expect at least the Grand Fleet and ten squadrons of Spitfires for my escort.” (“In Presence of My Foes”, Davies-Scourfield, Pen & Sword 2004).
They reached Calais on the afternoon of 23rd May but it soon became clear that the offensive mission which 30 Brigade had been allocated was unfeasible. Nicholson decided instead to hold Calais as best he could, using the line of the nineteenth century ramparts and moats which still encircled it. These extended for some eight miles. By Friday 24th May, Calais was surrounded by German forces. 30 Brigade was ordered to hold the port for as long as possible.
Churchill sent the message: “Every hour you continue to exist is of the greatest help to the BEF. Have greatest possible admiration for your splendid stand. Evacuation will not (repeat not) take place, and craft required for above purpose are to return to Dover”.
All morning of that day the Germans attacked along the southern ramparts held by 2KRRC and personnel from 1st Searchlight Regiment. The defenders were subjected to machine-gun and mortar fire and the western perimeter came under heavy shell-fire from dawn onwards. By 1200 it was clear that some attackers had infiltrated into the town behind 2KRRC’s positions in the south, and on the west a strong attack by tanks and infantry had, by the fall of darkness, closed to within two hundred yards of 2KRRC’s defences.
It was clear that the line could not hold for another day, and Nicholson ordered a withdrawal to the line of canals which surrounded the Old Town. Three bridges led across these canals: Pont Freycinet, Pont Richelieu, and Pont Faidherbe. Segar-Owen was ordered to hold these three vital bridges, which were to be the scenes of the bitterest fighting of the battle. All were blocked with barricades made of abandoned vehicles and other objects, and positions occupied in nearby buildings to cover the bridges with fire.
Segar-Owen secured the line of the bridges overnight: “At dusk, Major O.S. Owen, the second-in-command of the 60th, was seen walking along the canal front pointing out positions to be occupied in houses along the Quai de la Tamise and the Pont Faidherbe or ‘left-hand bridge’… Houses behind the canal line were fortified, with ‘B’ Company under Poole in reserve between the Rue des Marèchaux and the canal…” (Airey Neave, “The Flames of Calais”).
At first light on May 25th Segar-Owen set off in a car across Pont Faidherbe through the streets of southern Calais to see if the Germans had followed up the British withdrawal. He saw no sign that they had, but shortly afterwards Mike Sinclair and Gris Davies-Scourfield were sent out on a reconnaissance across the Pont Jacquard, and Sinclair’s carrier was shot out from under him. Davies-Scourfield recalled the moment: “During this drama I, in my leading carrier, was approaching the bridge. I pulled up momentarily to receive Mike’s warning and then moved on again. On reaching the bridge I was surprised to see Puffin Owen (the Battalion second-in-command) standing on it as if enjoying the morning air. “Come here,” he said. “Where are you off to?” I told him. He thought for a moment. “I don’t think there is any point in your going on. We now know that the enemy is in the town and quite close. Funnily enough I drove all round at first light and never saw any, but they’ve probably just turned up. Go back to the Colonel and tell him what I’ve said.”
My lucky star was evidently still in operation, for if Puffin had not been there at the moment I reached the bridge, my three carriers would have driven on into a lot of trouble.
As we went back I turned and saw old Puffin still standing on the bridge as if he had no care in all the world: the camel stick, which was such a familiar reminder of our days together in Aldershot, Tidworth, Stalbridge and Bocking, stood out clearly from beneath his arm. I would never see him again.”
At 1100 a German armoured car under a flag of truce approached ‘D’ Company 2KRRC at Pont Richelieu. The German commander, General Schall, had been told by his superiors not to take unnecessary losses, and he had sent the Mayor of Calais to ask Nicholson for 30 Brigade’s surrender, which he refused to give.
When news of Nicholson’s refusal to surrender reached the Germans, a storm of shell-fire was unleashed. Machine-gun and mortar fire and aerial attacks lashed the British defensive positions around the bridges and canals of the Old Town.
There was again a lull at 1515, when the Germans again demanded Nicholson’s surrender; again he refused, and at 1635 the shelling began once more. 2KRRC’s commanding officer sent the message to his battalion that: “Present positions will be held at all costs to the last round and to the last man.”
At 1930 German tanks began to arrive at Segar-Owen’s three bridges, and a major assault was launched on Pont Faidherbe. Two out of three attacking tanks were halted; the assault on Pont Richelieu fizzled out; but the barricade on Pont Freycinet was temporarily forced. Segar-Owen was killed in this fighting, at the age of forty. Davies-Scourfield heard the news late that night: Jack told me there had been savage fighting for the canal bridges on our right, where ‘A’ and ‘D’ companies had just managed to hold firm. On one of the bridges, the enemy had got across, but been driven back. He also gave me news I found quite devastating, that Puffin had been killed.”
The Germans halted their advance at 2145, but resumed it soon after 0500 on May 26th with a massive shelling from the entire artillery of XIX Corps. The fighting at Pont Freycinet and Pont Richelieu intensified, and gradually 2KRRC were pushed back into Calais Nord. By 1630 organized resistance was at an end and Brigadier Nicholson and the HQ staff had been taken prisoner.
Segar-Owen received a posthumous mention in despatches, and with no known grave is commemorated on panel 117 of the Dunkirk Memorial.
The gallantry with which 30 Brigade held the town for four days won time for their hard-pressed comrades of the BEF to be evacuated from Dunkirk and the neighbouring beaches.
- Surname: Segar-Owen
- Forenames or initials: Oswald
- House: K
- Years in School: 1913-1918
- Rank: Major
- Regiment: 2nd Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps
- Date of Birth: 1st July 1900
- Date of Death: 25th May 1940
- How Died: Killed in Action
- Location in War Cloister: Inner D2
- Decoration: NA
- Burial Site: Unknown but commemorated on the Dunkirk Memorial, Panel 117