The British counter-attack at Arras and Escaut

British troops man an anti-tank gun position in the ruined Belgium town of Louvain.

The French Commander in Chief, Gamelin had been replaced by Weygand on the 17th May, a situation that did not help the communication and co-ordination of a planned counter-attack with the British. The German armoured spearhead might have been vulnerable to an immediate counterblow but the delay gave them time to be re-inforced with artillery and infantry that were following.

The British Expeditionary Force put in several counter-attacks in the area of Arras on the 21st May although Weygand’s plan for co-ordinated counter attacks to link up French forces in the south with the Anglo-French-Belgian forces in the north came to nothing.

Jim Stockman of the Seaforth Highlanders describes part of the Arras battle:

The whole venture was so fierce and bloody. Not only were we giving them everything we had (which was more guts than gear), but there were also section after section who, seeing their positions overrun by the excellent German infantry and tanks, went in with the bayonet, that tremendous last-resort weapon of the British infantryman. It was here that the Seaforths were in their element, and the Germans learnt to respect us for our skill with cold steel.

The Germans were visibly shaken by the virulence of our attacks, experiencing transient but serious doubts regarding their intelligence assessments of Allied reserves. They must have imagined we had a lot more tucked away than we did, for however limited the Arias counter-punch, it seemed to have strong psychological effect on the enemy.

The men who went in against massed armour and well trained infantry used their bayonets as I never saw bayonets used before. It was like a mediaeval battlefield of Flanders, with the thrashing and lunging of bloody blades oddly in contrast with the grinding machinery of the Panzers.

At one point, three German tanks were out of action and their infantry, following on behind, confidently and rightly proud of their successes, stopped short and thought twice as soon as they saw our lads coming at them with war cries and bayonets flashing.

Clearly, they had never seen this sort of fighting before, and I believe we instilled fresh awareness of the value of infantry, even in highly mechanized warfare. It makes one pause and reflect on a German OKW51 report of 1942 which stated: ‘Each new weapon . . . is the death of the infantry. But there is only one new factor in the techniques of war which remains above all other inventions. This new factor is the Infantry!“

In similar vein, Wavell stressed ‘let us always write Infantry with a capital ‘I’,’ adding that the infantryman, as was certainly proved in BEF, ‘must be nimble of movement and nimble of mind. The former is largely a matter of equipment, the latter is wholly a matter of training“ I would add to this — it is also a matter of determination, which is what Arras was all about.

During this audacious counter-punch, I saw one young lieutenant, his arm blown off, still wielding a bayonet with his remaining arm. He was evidently in great agony, but was still calling on his platoon to advance on the enemy. I was proud to say ‘I am British’ watching our efforts at Arras. I have never witnessed bravery like it — and against such staggering odds!

A Lance-Corporal with us was limping along, legs shredded, still trying to fire a Bren gun long run out of ammunition. In the end, in sheer exasperation, he wrenched the bayonets from two rifles lying on the ground and ran in with four of his men, their bayonets slashing and stabbing in all directions until they were unrecognizable with blood and dirt.

I have no idea if any of these men got through, but if they did and are still alive today, they have my undying admiration —— they were among the greatest fighting men God put on this earth. Actions like these could be witnessed time and time again, and if anyone earned VCs, these young Scots lads certainly did.

Even 2 Panzer Division in their War Diary commented on their contact with meagrely trained and badly equipped Territorials, recording that ‘ground could only be gained slowly and with continual fighting against an enemy who defended himself stubbornly.’ This seemed to be the norm along the whole residual front.

See Jim Stockman: Seaforth Highlanders: A Fighting Soldier Remembers (1939-45)

Three German 88 FLAK 18s lightly dug in for ground combat. 21 May 1940? Arras area.
Three German 88 FLAK 18s lightly dug in for ground combat. 21 May 1940? Arras area.

The battle at Escaut was one among many counterattacks that day:

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

Tuesday 21st May.

Bn left Ere about 2 a.m. to march back. Fortunately Coy Cmdr. were required for some sort of recce and we went in C.O.’s car. Arrived Taintignies 3 a.m. and self went out again with Wilkie in C.O.’s car to look for for “C” Coy which had gone astray, and to see Q.M. about Bn rations in Wez-Velvain. Could not find either. Met the Battalion arriving from Ere when I left the village at 3 a.m. Got back myself at 4 a.m. found empty house which I entered by window and slept well for 5 hours. Officers mess going in house beside M.T. park, and had good breakfast.

Fairly quiet morning and orders to move this afternoon to Bn assembly position S of Wez-Velvain. Thence we were directed to Merlin and prepared for counter-attack to drive enemy off Western side of Escaut.

Battle of the Escaut:-

Orders were “C” Coy to attack first and made good line of the main road running down into Bruyelles. “B” Coy then to leap-frog through to level with Bridge, then keep to high ground. ‘”A” and “D” were to push through further when we had reached Bridge. “C” Coy confirmatory message arrived about 4 p.m. when “B” Company left Merlin. Peter Grant and 10 PI. went first to make good first spur past main road. 11 Pl next to 2nd Bound, and 12 Pl last to 3rd Bound.

Shelled all the way between Merlin and main road, but Coy well spread out. Munro of 10 Pl killed, Cpl. Campbell, Hunter, Armstrong, all wounded, but they continued to objective. Ground very unpleasently open all way to main road. All Pl’s got into position and Coy H. Q. was on back in thick wood on S.W. side of main road. Coy heavily shelled in position and sniped. 12 Pl had worst handling this evening. Fleming bullet wound in thigh, Galloway killed and 2 Johnstons and several others. 10 Pl – Peter Grant killed. Sgt Miller badly wounded, also one or two others.

Amalgamated 10 and 12 Pls under Sgt Turner. Sgt Watson Pl.Sgt. went round Company position and met Nigel Parker being brought in by Leidlar and some of 11 Pl. Wounded in both thighs. 11 Pl.captured enemy M.G. 2 enemy dead there and 2 prisoners taken. Broken ground lower down behind cement works rather a death trap 12 Pl lost a lot here.

Met “A” Coy going through to next bound and saw [ space ]. “D” Coy following “A” Coy. By about 10.30 p.m. Bn had taken position and extended almost up to Calonne. Enemy cut off from river and many withdrawn to other side. One enemy gun still firing from somewhere on our side of river, using traces into Coy H.Q. wood. C.S.M. and self had long job getting back owing to gun traversing edge of wood – eventually silenced I think by “A” Coy. “C” Coy now in Reserve in sunken road. “B” Coy reduced to 2 Pls and told we should be relieved by 7 W at midnight.

Peter was instantly killed by mortar shell which landed within a few yards of him. Pte Rae was killed by the same shell and I think Sgt Miller was wounded by it as well. Fragments of shell passed through Peter’s cigarette case and through his head.

Thereafter we had a very difficult night, especially at Coy H.Q. Our wood was continuously shelled. S.B’s [Stretcher Bearers] had to carry wounded back to Merlin, Bn H. Q., over 1 mile. We had 4 of them and totally insufficient for distance and numbers. [?]Horler brought in late, shot in both legs. Collard, S.B. from A Coy, one of our S.B.’s and S [space] started off with [?Horler], got about 30 yds when shell landed beside them. S[—- ] instantly killed badly blow-up. Collard badly wounded, Horler wounded again for 3rd time. Eventually got them away. No sign of 7 W at midnight.

Coy and self – 12 miles marching.

[Entry No.12, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

[NB: ‘Peter’ apparently refers to Lieutenant Peter Grant, Captain Leah’s second in command in B Company]

Captain Leah’s account provides just one small part of the fierce fighting at Escaut where two Victoria Crosses were won on the same day by British soldiers.

Lance-Corporal Nicholls, 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards:

On the 21st May, 1940, Lance-corporal Nicholls was commanding a section in the right-forward platoon of his company when the company was ordered to counter-attack. At the very start of the attack he was wounded in the arm by shrapnel, but continued to lead his section forward; as the company came over a small ridge, the enemy opened heavy machine-gun fire at close range.

Lance-corporal Nicholls, realising the danger to the company, immediately seized a Bren gun and dashed forward towards the machine-guns, in spite of being again severely wounded.

Lance-corporal Nicholls then went on up to a higher piece of ground and engaged the German infantry massed behind, causing many casualties, and continuing to fire until he had no more ammunition left.

He was wounded at least four times in all, but absolutely refused to give in. There is no doubt that his gallant action was instrumental in enabling his company to reach its objective, and in causing the enemy to fall back across the River Scheldt.

Lance-corporal Nicholls has since been reported to have been killed in action.

London Gazette 26th July 1940

In fact lance Corporal Nicholls had been taken prisoner and he was eventually awarded the Victoria Cross by the German commandant at his Prisoner of War camp in Poland.

Company Sergeant-Major Gristock, Royal Norfolk Regiment:

For most conspicuous gallantry on the 21st May 1940, when his company was holding a position on the line of the River Escaut, south of Tournai. After a prolonged attack, the enemy succeeded in breaking through beyond the company’s right flank which was consequently threatened. Company Sergeant-Major Gristock having organised a party of eight riflemen from company headquarters, went forward to cover the right flank.

Realising that an enemy machine-gun had moved forward to a position from which it was inflicting heavy casualties on his company, Company Sergeant-Major Gristock went on, with one man as connecting file, to try to put it out of action. Whilst advancing, he came under heavy machine-gun fire from the opposite bank and was severely wounded in both legs, his right knee being badly smashed. He nevertheless gained his fireposition, some twenty yards from the enemy machine-gun post, undetected, and by well aimed rapid fire killed the machine-gun crew of four and put their gun out of action. He then dragged himself back to the right flank position from which he refused to be evacuated until contact with the battalion on the right had been established and the line once more made good.

By his gallant action, the position of the company was secured, and many casualties prevented. Company Sergeant-Major Gristock has since died of his wounds.

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