After the weeks stuck in the grinding battles of Normandy both the British and the Americans were rapidly advancing through France. For the British, bypassing the Channel ports still occupied by the Germans, the contrast was so great and the progress so easy that the thrust north west was described as ‘swanning along’ – and the advance was nicknamed the ‘Great Swan’.
They were now passing through territory that many of their fathers in World War 1 would have been terribly familiar with. The older men, which meant most of the senior officers including Montgomery himself, had direct experience of fighting here less than thirty years earlier.
Captain Geoffrey Picot describes the progress of his infantry battalion, behind the armour:
…generally the battalion would travel behind an armoured force, and whereas the armour might have to keep going continuously, we would move by bounds, waiting till the tanks had a lead of ten or twenty miles and then travelling that distance in one spell. We would then harbour up and wait possibly a few hours or a few days till the armour had gone twenty miles ahead again, then bound forward to catch them up. The tactical role of the armour was to get moving and keep moving; our tactical duty was to mop up everything they left behind and form a firm base behind them wherever they went.
Our battalion column contained something like 130 vehicles; thus if lorries were forty yards apart we would take up three miles of road. We had to watch the spacing, because if vehicles bunched too closely together they would present a tempting target for the German air force. On the other hand, if they were spread out too much we would occupy a lot of road space and that would make progress slow, as we were just a small part of a great column.
On a typical move an armoured division, with 200 tanks, three battalions of lorry-borne infantry and a vast assortment of other vehicles, would lead, followed by an infantry division of which we were but a ninth part. With ambulances, supply vehicles, repair trucks and lorried equipment for supporting weapons added in, the two divisions would contain thousands of vehicles, so if the infantry were to be anywhere near the armour, and supplies anywhere near either of them, each vehicle would have to keep reasonably close to the one in front of it.
We were frequently warned to expect opposition from the German air force, for as we drove eastwards we would be approaching their bases, but not once did they trouble us.
On these long moves from Normandy to Brussels no infantryman footslogged. Speed was essential in pursuing this defeated enemy, so riflemen were bundled into lorries, Bren gun carriers, jeeps, vehicles of all descriptions — but mainly 3—ton TCVs (troop-carrying vehicles) — and driven forward.
When fighting was likely to develop they jumped out of their vehicles and ran into battle formation. The scare over, or the battle over, whichever it proved to be, back in again, and press on.
Rifleman ‘Roly’ Jefferson of 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade:
[E]arly in the morning, the French population came to life and offered us any drinks we wanted. It was a party atmosphere. The French called us all ‘Tommy’. We realized we were now in the battlefields of the First War which our fathers had known so well. A common joke was ‘Come away from her, she’s probably your sister.’
At first light we found ourselves sitting astride the approaches to Amiens. [Later on.] The bridges over the River Somme were intact. There was some fighting but nothing like that in Normandy.
At times we could hardly move for the frantic cheering crowds who swarmed onto our vehicles and showered us with fruit, flowers, champagne and wine. We were embraced by women, children and old, bearded men with tears of joy streaming unashamedly down their faces. We pushed on again. It was farcical. The celebrating population were holding us up during the day.
Another night drive took us through famous First War battlefields of Arras, Loos and Lens. We told ourselves we would soon be re-occupying the trenches which our fathers had so bravely defended in their war.
We passed too, numerous huge War Cemeteries. They all looked so neat and tidy, even though under German occupation for four years. We choked back emotion as we contemplated with pride those heroes of a different age. We travelled by day and by night.
We passed signposts marked Ypres. As we neared Armentieres, we joked about whether we would meet the Mademoiselle made so famous in the First War song. There were signs to Dunkirk too. At least we were avenging the humiliating defeat inflicted by the Germans there.