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.
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.
[Entry No.16, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]
The British Expeditionary Force were now surrounded in a pocket in northern France and it seemed very clear that most would be lost. The most urgent arrangements were being made to evacuate them from the French ports but it was estimated that it would only be possible to get, at most, a few tens of thousands of men away.
Then on 24th May Hitler intervened, issuing his ‘Halt’ order to the Panzers that were poised to go in for the kill. It was an order that the German commanders found difficult to understand at the time, and strategists and historians have found difficult to understand ever since.
There seems little doubt that elements in the German High Command were reconsidering the wisdom of rapid Panzer thrusts that might leave the tanks too far out in advance without supporting artillery and infantry. Rommel in particular had embraced this approach – but even he had had a few anxious moments where he personally was involved in directing the supporting arms to keep up with the Panzers. The British counter-attack at Arras had also given them pause for thought.
Another reason was that he did’t want his tanks to get bogged down, which recent research has given credence to. A more speculative view is that by adopting a generous attitude to the British he hoped to be able to come to peace terms with them.
Whatever the reasoning, Hitler’s decision gave the BEF just enough breathing space to form a better defensive line and to begin implementing the evacuation plans.
German troops were now established on the coast west of Calais and threatening to move east along the coast, cutting off the British forces access to the sea. Fresh troops were landed in Calais, intended to hold up the German advance and permit the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Stephen Sykes, a Royal Engineers officer, describes the scene in Calais as the new troops arrive and the wounded and others are evacuated:
During that night and at first light the shelling intensified and proved uncannily accurate, putting some of the dockside cranes out of action. These had been operated by French civilians who had largely disappeared. It was said afterwards that the German artillery had been in telephonic communication with Fifth Column observers in the town, who reported the accuracy of the shelling over the civilian telephone service.
I was woken abruptly at 4.30 am and summoned to help transfer wounded to the Ben Lawers from the hospital train which had moved alongside the quay from the marshalling yard. The men had been wounded in Belgium and had been in the train some days, being shunted this way and that to avoid the German advance.
The Ben Lawers was a medium-sized cargo ship which, with the Kohistan, had brought in the Queen Victoria Rifles and their vehicles and ammunition, as yet only half off-loaded. When I first emerged from the stuffy cellar and instinctively sniffed the fresh salt air I was met with, for me, a new and very unpleasant smell. It was the smell of scorched flesh, coming from the corpses of men who had received direct hits on the quayside.
For the unloading of the hospital train it was a question of pairing off with someone, going into the train (which also stenched heavily) and carrying to the ship a wounded man on his stretcher. Very soon all the available space below decks was full, and stretchers had to be arranged on the open decks. Continue reading “The evacuation from Calais as Hitler orders ‘Halt’”
In Germany Himmler saw the war in the west as opportunity to accelerate racial measures against the Gypsies. At this stage the Germans were still taking official photographs of the measures they were undertaking, as here. Himmler would soon be touring the newly occupied countries for more victims.
The intense fighting on Okinawa saw many acts of heroism. Conditions were so fierce and so sustained that it must have taken great courage just to stay on the battlefield and remain in combat. In amongst the mayhem some individual acts stood out and were subsequently recognised, there were a total of 24 Medal of Honor recipients during the three months of battle.
One award was unusual because it went to a non combatant. Sergeant Desmond Doss was a Seventh-Day Adventist who served with the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. His citation gives a series of examples of his heroism each illustrating the nature of conditions on Okinawa:
He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet (120 m) high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.
On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards (180 m) forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards (7.3 m) of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.
On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet (7.6 m) from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards (91 m) to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire.
On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover.
The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of 1 arm.
With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards (270 m) over rough terrain to the aid station.
Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.
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.
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.
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.
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: Continue reading “The BEF are encircled, 7th Royal Sussex are decimated”
The situation in France was unravelling fast. The Germans had now secured their breakthrough in the gap they had forced north of the Maginot Line. The great bulk of the French Army was still confined to these great fortresses and there was neither the means, nor seemingly the will, to bring them into the battle. A plan was drawn up to cut off the German Panzer thrust by the French driving north and the British driving south at the base of the German advance. It was the logical thing to do but it never materialised.
The British Cabinet was now informed that the British Army might have to be evacuated from the north French coast in order to save them – it was just over a week since they had gone forward into Belgium so confidently.
At home Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation, his address made the seriousness of the situation abundantly clear. He acknowledged that the Germans Panzers “have penetrated deeply and spread alarm and confusion in their track” but he still held out the hope that the front could be stabilised:
We may look with confidence to the stabilization of the Front in France, and to the general engagement of the masses, which will enable the qualities of the French and British soldiers to be matched squarely against those of their adversaries. For myself, I have invincible confidence in the French Army and its leaders.
Only a very small part of that splendid Army has yet been heavily engaged; and only a very small part of France has yet been invaded. There is a good evidence to show that practically the whole of the specialized and mechanized forces of the enemy have been already thrown into the battle; and we know that very heavy losses have been inflicted upon them.
No officer or man, no brigade or division, which grapples at close quarters with the enemy, wherever encountered, can fail to make a worthy contribution to the general result. The Armies must cast away the idea of resisting behind concrete lines or natural obstacles, and must realize that mastery can only be regained by furious and unrelenting assault. And this spirit must not only animate the High Command, but must inspire every fighting man.
He knew that his main task was to unite and inspire the British people for the long fight ahead:
We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all – to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be. This is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain.
It is also beyond doubt the most sublime. Side by side, unaided except by their kith and kin in the great Dominions and by the wide empires which rest beneath their shield – side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.
Behind them – behind us- behind the Armies and Fleets of Britain and France – gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians – upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.
Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”
Captain R. Leah describes the practical difficulties faced by the British Expeditionary Force units as they seek to withdraw:
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Sunday 19th May.
Anxious to get away before light, but no sign of A.F.V’s till about 3 a.m. and were just moving out of Lessines as dawn was breaking. “B” Coy were rear guard and last away. Heavy mortar shelling this morning. Apparently insufficient transport for everybody. Transport took some on, part of the way, then came back and lifted others, and so on. We marched until about 10 a.m. Everybody extraordinarily tired. Road crowded – at least 2 waits moving back on our road. Our Tpt not too well organized, drivers did not know their destination nor did I. Saw Michael Kemp when entering Tournai. R.A.S.C. finally dumped us in Tournai. Eventually got hold of Rutterford, P.S.M., who took me to Bn area, borrowed some tpt and went back and fetched company. Continue reading “British withdrawal accelerates as Churchill speaks”
The German forces were spearheaded by tanks and mechanised troops which achieved rapid advances that the Allies were ill prepared to meet. On the 18th May the French High Command became aware that the Germans were breaking out from their Sedan bridgehead. The Blitzkrieg or ‘Lightning War’ now began to accelerate, spreading panic and confusion.
Yet the larger part of the German army that followed still relied on horse drawn transport. Siegfried Knapp was an officer with an horse drawn Artillery unit part of 8th Army Korp, 4th Army, Army Group A, that started its journey on 11th May. They marched through the Ardennes before entering Belgium on 13th May 1940. He describes the daily routine of his unit, which marched for a week, had one days rest on 19th May, then entered France on May 21st and did not fire their first round until May 25th.
We had to be ready to move out at 6:00 a.m. In our battalion, the horse people, the cook, and one officer from each battery got up at 4:30. At that early hour, it was still dark. It was always cold, and it was usually wet with early-morning dew if not with rain. The birds would soon begin to protest our disturbing their sleep as the cook started fires under the coffee and tea kettles and the two huge cooking drums on their field kitchens. The cooks would put everything for a thick stew in the large drums and build fires under the drums before we left at 6:00. The stew would continue to cook on the field kitchen wagon as we marched. The smell of the smoke from the cook’s fires mingled with the odor of the earth’s dampness.
The grinding battle for Okinawa continued unabated. The Japanese were making full use of their huge network of underground tunnels and caves from which they conducted a suicidal defence. U.S. casualties had been heavy. Company E, 307th Infantry, 77th Division, were in reserve in the five days before the 17th. They received many replacements during this time, bringing them up to strength – although most of these men had no combat experience at all, and there was little opportunity fro these men to become properly integrated.
Then Company E were selected to lead an audacious assault deep into the main Japanese defence line, an attempt to disrupt the line and turn the battle.
Lieutenant Robert F. Meiser, a platoon commander with Company E, described the action in his duty report submitted shortly after they were withdrawn on the 20th May. To begin the night assault they had to move up over 450 yards of ground pockmarked with shell-holes, and then penetrate through Japanese lines for a further 800 yards, moving almost all of the way in single file. To maintain the element of surprise they would only use bayonets if they encountered the enemy. At 0415 on the 17th they left their Line of Departure with their objective, Ishimmi Ridge just visible where ‘three or four limbless trees’ were lit by flares:
Dawn began to break as we came upon our objective. About 50 yards from it, the 3rd platoon echeloned to the left of the 2nd and nearly on line, forming the left front and flank. The 2nd continued straight forward to occupy the center ar1d foremost position, while the platoon from Company C held the right front and flank. Our rear was protected by a well formed semi-circle of the 1st platoon.
We now found that the 125 yard part of the objective we were able to occupy was a very prominent, table top ridge. It was quite flat and made up of rock and coral where digging was very difficult, and in some places impossible.
The top center of Ishimmi Ridge was very narrow, being only about seven or eight yards wide, and then fanning out to either flank in a leaf-like pattern. Directly to the rear of the narrow section of the ridge was a pocket, 20 yards in diameter, in which the company Command Post was located, and this, ultimately, was the location of the company’s final stand.
To our right rear, 250 yards distant, were two grassy mounds of earth, each about 30 feet high and affording perfect observation into our positions. Likewise, to the center rear was a finger ridge extension which afforded the enemy an excellent OP as well as machine gun positions.
At 0505 we were on our objective, and as daylight was coming we hastened to dig in. The enemy on the ridge was completely surprised and was not aware of our presence for nearly 20 minutes. While initially caught napping, they soon made up for lost time and all hell broke loose at 0530. Mortar shells, heavy and light, began falling on our area in such fury and volume that one would believe the place had been zeroed in for just such an eventuality. Machine gun and rifle fire began pouring in from all directions and within a short time even enemy artillery began shelling us.
As daylight came, we finally realized that we were in a spot and that the enemy controlled the position from every direction, including the rear. The [3rd] Platoon on the left was receiving murderous fire, especially from both flanks and the high Shuri Ridge across the valley to our front.
Foxholes were only partly completed and to raise one’s head meant death on that fire-swept plateau. Mortar shells very often dropped directly in the foxhole, usually taking at least one man’s life or badly wounding several. The same action was taking place [with the Company C platoon] on the right flank as that area was almost identical to the one on the left.
In the rear, the 1st Platoon was faring no better and was taking a terrific pounding from all types of fire. However, they maintained continuous and effective fire on the enemy, especially to the right and left rear, greatly reducing his advantages there. Our light mortars were in this area and though only partially dug in, the mortar crews fired as long as the mortars were serviceable.
By 1000 the first day, enemy action had knocked out all but one of the mortars and killed or wounded nearly all the crewmen.
The 2nd Platoon had gone over the center of the ridge and dropped into a long Jap communication trench which was about six feet deep. Small dug-outs in this trench contained about 10 or 12 sleeping enemy who were quickly disposed of by bayonet or rifle fire. However, tunnels from inside the ridge led into either end of the trench and the enemy soon attempted to force their way upward. At first, surprise was so complete that a japanese officer and his aide, laughing and talking, came toward us in the trench, walked completely past one of our men and were killed without realizing what hit them.
By making use of the tunnels the Nips were soon able to set up knee mortars about 100 yards to either flank and fire systematically from one end of the trench to the other. Each position had two mortars which were firing simultaneously, doing great damage to the earthworks of our line as well as producing heavy casualties in our ranks. Riflemen were blown to bits by these mortars and many were struck in the head by machine gun fire. The blood from the wounded was everywhere; on the weapons, on the living, and splattered all around. The dead lay where they fell, in pools of their own blood. Though the platoon medic was wounded early in the morning, he took care of the injured as fast as possible, but was unable to keep up and soon his supplies were exhausted.
By 0700 both of our light machine guns had been knocked out, one being completely buried. The few remaining crewmen became riflemen and stayed right there throughout the day. During the morning a few Japanese had managed to crawl up from the deep ravine to a line just slightly beneath our position and began hurling grenades upwards at us. Grenades were tossed back and soon the infiltrators were killed or driven backward, but we had suffered too.
The battle continued furiously all morning and by noon the 2nd Platoon had suffered heavily, about 50 percent being killed or wounded. The number of Japs killed had mounted steadily, but they were still able to reinforce almost at will and attempted numerous frontal and flanking counterattacks.
Meanwhile the 3rd Platoon [on the left] had had a steady grenade battle and had repulsed three fixed bayonet attacks by the enemy coming from their left flank. However, the men of this platoon had very little cover and were being whittled down man by man until more than half of them were out of action, including their platoon leader. Dead men were pushed hurriedly from the all too small holes in order to make more room for the living. In some cases the firing was so heavy as to even prevent this, and the living and bloody, mangled dead were as one in their foxholes. By 1800 the first day there were only a handful of men left alive in this platoon and they were clinging tenaciously to the few remaining positions of their own right flank.
In London Lord Ismay had become Churchill’s military assistant and staff officer. He noted in his diary the effects of Churchill taking command:
The change in leadership may have given rise to a few misgivings in Whitehall. There is a type of senior official, both civil and military, who get more and more set in their ways as they ascend the ladder of promotion. These able, upright, worthy men do not like the even tenor of their lives disturbed, and resent dynamic ministerial control. This is precisely what they were likely to suffer at Churchill’s hands.
But whatever misgivings there were in Whitehall, the nation as a whole acclaimed his leadership with enthusiasm. Almost overnight the British public took him to their hearts. Here was a man who they understood and who understood them; a man who would not be content with merely warding off the enemy’s blows, but would ‘give it them back’ with all the power at his command.
Churchill’s made energetic attempts to bolster the French resistance, but was dismayed by their defeatism. Meanwhile the Germans continued to press on in Belgium.
Across Belgium the British Expeditionary Force was still trying to fall back in some order:
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Friday 17th May
Coy H. Q. in stables in racecourse grounds. Did not get back from conference till 2 a.m. and stood to at 3.30 a.m. so not very much sleep. Battalion position on main road round race course. “B” Coy on left near railway and roundabout, “C”in centre, “D” on right, “A” Coy round southern end of racecourse. Started to withdraw about 8.30 a.m. in order C, B, D, A, C.O. arrested 2 suspected parachutists who marched with “B” Coy and were later released at Loth.
Worst and most tiring march so far, only about 12 miles actually, but everybody feeling the effect of the last few days. Heavy enemy bombing Loth area, had to wait outside town about half an hour. Crossed canal held by Gds and S.H’s. slept in field two or three hours and ate haversack ration. About 4 p.m marched off about one mile and embussed. Very crowded in transport had to take round about way by side roads to avoid aircraft. Were machine gunned and bombed.
Got cut off from and lost remainder of convoy in one village. After that took a wrong turning. Caught up Battalion on main road after couple of hours. Had “C” Company behind us. Bought bottle of home made beer from driver in R.A.S.C. wearing L. Scottish rosettes on shoulder. Arrived Lessines 9 p.m. Dark and drizzling. Battalion billeted for night in main street, good billets in very comfortable shop and houses. Slept very comfortably for about 5 hours.
Coy and Self – 13 miles.
[Entry No.8, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]