The BEF are encircled, 7th Royal Sussex are decimated

German artillery on the western front, May 1940

With the situation rapidly deteriorating in France the British Expeditionary Force sent forward their main reserves. The intention was to launch a counter-attack in the region of Arras, hopefully in co-ordination with the French.

Private D.J. OSBORNE was a lorry driver with the 7th Battalion Royal Sussex Rifles. On the 18th May he was fortunate enough to remain behind with 200 other men from the HQ and Motor Transport sections of the battalion while the 581 men in the main rifle companies were rushed forward by train. Their ultimate destination was Arras but they never made it.

On the outskirts of Amiens the train was attacked by Stuka dive-bombers. Eighty men died, including eight officers in one carriage. Unable to move any further and cut off from contact with HQ, the commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin, himself wounded, decided that they would be best employed maintaining a defensive position on rising ground on the outskirts of Amiens. Unfortunately the remaining 501 men now found themselves in the direct path of the Germans:

At 16:00 hrs on 19th May 1940 the enemy appeared and gave battle until 18:00 hrs when they disengaged, and overnight regrouped and made good his losses.

At 03:00 hrs on 20th May 1940, the enemy re-appeared, coming from the east. A column of motorized infantry accompanied by tanks approached the positions of the 7th Battalion RSR. Their positions had previously been detected and noted by German spotter planes. The Germans had decided that it was essential to eliminate this possible threat to their advance. The enemy troops were [from 1st Panzer Division, the spearhead for] German Army Group “A” commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt. It consisted of 44 Infantry Divisions, 7 Armoured Divisions and 3 Motorized Divisions.

It should be remembered that the 7th Battalion RSR, in common with all Battalions of 12th Division, had very few arms. Each man carried a Rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition and their experience of handling these was very limited. The Battalion’s supply of ammunition was minimal as no effort had been made by their Divisional Staff to ensure that they were properly equipped before they were sent into battle. Nevertheless the men of the 7th Battalion RSR engaged the enemy as if they were a well founded Battalion. The enemy was quite unaware of the weakness of the force against them. From behind every bit of cover these gallant but doomed men fought their one-sided battle.

A lucky shot from one of the few anti tank rifles put a tank out of action. This caused the enemy to become wary. The German Infantry deployed both heavy mortars and a battery of field artillery was bought into action to add to the deluge of shells being poured out by the encircling tanks. Against the might of the enemy, the 7th Battalion RSR had 6 Boyes anti-tank rifles with 32 rounds in total and 10 Bren guns.

The ammunition was soon expended; there was no reserve, they had no mortars and no artillery support or signals platoon to help them. When the fire from the 7th Battalion RSR slackened, the enemy was reluctant to advance for the kill, so they called up the Stuka U.U.87 Dive Bombers to help them. However the outcome was never in doubt. As the afternoon wore on the casualties increased, and finally at 20:00 hrs with every round fired, the survivors reluctantly surrendered.

Of the 581 men of all the Companies that had left Buchy on 18th May 1940, only 70 men survived to be taken into captivity. Not even during the murderous engagements on the Somme or at Paschendaele in World War I had any unit suffered such casualties. But their sacrifice had not been in vain: it so discouraged the enemy from penetrating southwards that it had saved their sister Battalion the 6th Battalion RSR from a similar fate and that of a Moroccan Regiment that was not far off.

Of those men taken into captivity, the Adjutant of the Battalion, a Major Cassels, had refused to raise his arms in surrender and was promptly shot.

During the action Sergeant Glover (Carriers) shot down two Stuka Dive Bombers with a Bren gun. He would have had three, but in the confusion of battle he forgot to remove the safety catch and the target had passed by the time he had realized. The 7th Battalion RSR had delayed the advance of the German Army Group ‘A’ for a total of 21 hours.

Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin was taken prisoner by Oberleutnant Gerhard Richter who in due course delivered him to his commanding officer Major General Erwin Rommel. Rommel was commanding the 7th Panzer Division, a section of which had been detailed to eliminate the threat posed by the 7th Battalion RSR.

All the men captured at St Roche (70) served a total of 5 years at the German P.O.W. camp, Stalag XX “A”, at a place called Torun in Poland, and when the war was over they had to walk a distance of 1300 miles back into Germany to get repatriated. All the 430 men killed at St Roche (Amiens) now lay buried in the Military Cemetery at Abbeville, row upon row of them.

Read the whole of Private D.J. OSBORNE’ account on BBC People’s War . There is another account at 7th Royal Sussex which suggests that more than 70 men were taken prisoner. Nevertheless there is an incomplete picture of this action because of the very heavy casualties and because the Battalion’s War Diary was lost during the course of it.

Late on the 20th May 1940 the advance German units reached the French coast at Noyelles. The French Army was cut in two, with the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force cut off in Belgium and north west France with their backs to the English Channel. In London there was a growing realisation that a full scale evacuation of the BEF was needed.

The encirclement was very large and the British forces were not yet in any danger of being attacked from the rear. Nevertheless the German forces pursuing them in Belgium maintained their pressure. Captain Leah describes the confusion they encountered while seeking to withdraw under shell fire:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Monday 20th May

Left Tournai after midnight this morning en route for Taintignies. Quite a long march before breakfast. Must have arrived about 8.30 or 9 am. Coys allotted area in and around wood again. Breakfast right away and then company slept in wood. Coy Comdrs recce in front of St. Maur where the WKS were. Great difficulty in getting down from St. Maur to their Bn H.Q. Road heavily shelled.

C.O. , Maurice, Reech and self had to crawl along ditch most of the way. One gunner killed and one wounded just in front of me. Arrived there Bn H.Q. also under heavy shelling, difficult to get down to forward areas. Reech and I resorted to mess and helped ourselves to white wine, ration biscuits and bully then started off across country back to C.O’s car. C.O. and Maurice then caught us up.

Lots of rumours of tanks again. On arrival back forced another perimeter of village and blocked all roads. Sudden move again this evening. Marched to Ere about seven miles, Waited there several hours, supposed to be taking over line from another unit… All slept on the side of road. Finally received orders to return Taintignies. While waiting at the roadside to Ere about 10.30 p.m. Pte Hutchinson had his arm run over and broken by a truck.

Marching: 20 miles – Coy & Self. 185 since last Monday.

Entry No.11, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15