Norfolks fight on as bombing fails to halt Germans

Men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment man a snow-covered forward trench in France while hand grenades are handed out to other soldiers on 26 January 1940. Most of the preparations for war made by the British Expeditionary Force were based on the experiences of the First World War.

Men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment man a snow-covered forward trench in France while hand grenades are handed out to other soldiers on 26 January 1940. Most of the preparations for war made by the British Expeditionary Force were based on the experiences of the First World War.

Men of the Norfolk Regiment receive their rum ration before going out on patrol, 26 January 1940.

Men of the Norfolk Regiment receive their rum ration before going out on patrol, 26 January 1940.

Desperate efforts were now being made to establish a perimeter line around the British positions in northern France. The estimates from the Royal Navy suggested that 30,000 men, at best 50,000, might be evacuated out of over 250,000 men in the British Expeditionary Force.

Although most of Hitler’s Panzers were now stalled this did not mean that German forces were not pressing the British positions. The 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment found themselves facing west as they struggled to hold the La Bassee Canal against the Waffen SS 2nd Totenkopf Regiment. Private Ernie Farrow, a Pioneer with the HQ Company who was called in to fill a gap in the line, describes the situation on the 25th:

We had to go in between two different companies — just the Pioneers which was about twenty of us because we’d lost about eight men by this time. What they told us to do was to go up on to the top of this canal bank and make sure that every round that we fired got a German.

We were getting short of ammunition and we must try and make every round count. I was using my .303 rifle, occasionally we took turns in firing the Bren gun but there again we had to be very careful. We found that by using the rifles we could save quite a lot of ammunition. We could pick a German off with our rifle just as well as we could do with the Bren gun where you’d fire probably twenty rounds to hit the same German.

After we’d fired a certain amount of rounds, we’d got to scramble back down the bank of the canal, run along a bit, then go up top again – just to try and bluff the Germans that there was a great company of us there. We were being hard pressed, we were being machine gunned, mortared, shelled.

We were led to believe that the German tanks were made of cardboard and plywood but by God we knew the difference when they started firing at us — we got our heads down very, very quickly! The most terrible thing that I’ve ever experienced.

We were dug in our little fox holes and we’d keep our heads down but you couldn’t be there all the time — you had to get up to fire at the Germans on the other side because those Germans were trying to get across the canal to get at us! The more we were hiding up the less chance we had of stopping them. So we had to go out and fire at them.

They were even driving their lorries into the canal and trying to drive their tanks across on these lorries. But the artillery managed to keep them at bay. I don’t think we saw an aircraft over our sector at the time.

It was a very frightening thing. It really showed you what war was like.

See Peter Hart (ed): Voices from the Front: The 2nd Norfolk Regiment: From Le Paradis to Kohima

Pontoon bridge over La Bassee Canal. German PzKpfw 38(t) crossing. probably on 27th May, from Rommel's personal collection, later captured by the British.

Pontoon bridge over La Bassee Canal. German PzKpfw 38(t) crossing, probably on 27th May, from Rommel’s personal collection, later captured by the British.

Although many in the British Expeditionary Force were to complain that they did not see the RAF, tremendous efforts were being made to hold up the German advance. Troops on the ground who were being bombed felt that the Germans were unopposed.

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

Saturday May 25th

Arrived about 2 a.m. Estaires. Got billeted and to bed by 3 a.m. Slept till 9.

Great enemy air activity today. Had orders to move back to Festubert. Sent Cameron on billeting, then arrived self with 1 Pl. Got settled in and was going to look for Camerons in War Cemetery when we were called back to Estaires. Lot of enemy air bombing along roads. Then had orders to move back to Violaines. Later in afternoon Coy Comdrs went on to meet Queens Regt, who we were to relieve in L.B. and recce area there. The usual defences of a canal in a town. Mortar shelling.

Went back to Violaines and had a meal. Company arrived shortly afterwards. Carried out relief tonight, fairly quiet. Put 11 Pl in the houses on right where some French troops were and left 10 Pl out in houses near Coy H.Q. All had some sleep tonight.

3 miles.

[Entry No.16, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

Aerial view of Marck, bombed-May-1940

The RAF were seeking to bomb the advancing Germans columns. The village of Marcke, south-west of Courtrai, was bombed by Blenheims from 82 Squadron on the 25th May. The route used by the German transport columns can clearly be seen leading up to a pontoon bridge, circled on the left of the photograph. One salvo of bombs is seen landing directly on this route, circled in the middle.

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