The Holocaust progresses while war rages

Men, women and children of the Roma and Sinti peoples are deported from the German city of Asberg, 22nd May 1940. They were sent to forced labour camps in Poland where the majority died from starvation and maltreatment. The remainder were later sent to death camps. There were no survivors from the groups arrested at this time.
Large group of Roma and Sinti people marched through Asberg town centre
The townspeople of Asberg watch while the Roma and Sinti groups are marched to the trains.
Sinti and Roma people on train
This official photograph, 22nd May 1940, may have been intended to persuade the public that this was merely a \’relocation\’: this group have been put in a conventional train rather than the usual cattle trucks.

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 British attacks around Arras on the 21st had gained them a little respite but no real advantage since they continued to be outflanked, forcing them to continue to withdraw: Continue reading “The Holocaust progresses while war rages”

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The French Commander in Chief, Gamelin had been replaced by Weygand on the 17th May, a situation that did not help the communication and co-ordination of a planned counter-attack with the British.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.

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: Continue reading “The BEF are encircled, 7th Royal Sussex are decimated”

British withdrawal accelerates as Churchill speaks

German tanks, 1940
German armour advancing into Belgium

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.”

For the full speech see The Churchill Centre.

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”

Mounted troops consolidate the German advance

Horse drawn light artillery, Belgium, May 1940

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.

Continue reading “Mounted troops consolidate the German advance”

Churchill stiffens British resolve

German troops were apparently welcomed in some parts of Belgium

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.

See The Memoirs of General Lord Ismay.

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.

Belgian prisoners of war
German troops examine a Belgian tank

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]

See TNA WO 217/15

The German advance continues

German built pontoon bridges allowed their advance to continue even where bridges had been blown up – a Panzer crosses the Maas on the 16th May.

The British Expeditionary Force now faced the very difficult task of conducting a fighting retreat across Belgium:

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

Thursday 16th

Withdrawal generally not quite to plan, and Kerr came in too soon. Forward battalions not even clear at 3.15 a.m. By this time all the company were back on the roads leading in to the village. [?] Section 10 Pl only members of the company who were in contact with the enemy. Saw Michael Kemp tonight going back with his company. We did not quit Ottemburg till 3.45. Had sent C.S.M. , Coy H. Q. and 12 Pl back previously, about 2 a.m. to the 1st Bound. After 1 1/2 hours they gave us up as lost, and started withdrawing. Continue reading “The German advance continues”

The BEF start to withdraw

Bomb craters on aerial picture of Arreux
The village of Arreux, with bomb craters beside the roads following an attack by Blenheims of 82 Squadron, 15th May in an attack on German road transport- illustrating the difficulty conventional bombers faced in dealing with such targets.

Meanwhile the situation was rapidly changing for the British Expeditionary Force. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders came into contact with the enemy for the first time and then found themselves withdrawing:

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

Wednesday 15th May.

About 9.30 a.m. the C.O. arrived with the message that “B” Company was going forward to Ottenburg to become Brigade Reserve. I went on with C.O., saw the new area, and the company marched up. Whilst visiting had lunch in the W. [?] mess. Ottenburg shelled steadily all day, but quite light stuff. Took Hughes up as runner. His and my first experience of shelling. Did not care much for the position. Kerr, on the right, was isolated, forward up the road, with Fleming behind him about 1/2 a mile and 10 Pl on the left. The previous Company had obviously left in a great hurry, not having time to collect all their kit. Company H.Q. was extremely comfortable and we looked forward to a good night. Did not keep any tpt [transport] forward except for the 8cwt. Continue reading “The BEF start to withdraw”

Rotterdam bombed, RAF suffer major losses

The destruction of Dutch bridges only delayed the German forces – Pioneer troops building a temporary bridge at Maastricht, 14th May 1940.
Dutch soldiers with white flag
Dutch officers moving preparing to negotiate with German forces in Rotterdam

The Dutch garrison in Rotterdam had successfully halted the German advance on the city’s riverbank but now faced much stronger German forces, including the 9th Panzer Division and SS troops. The Dutch were in the process of negotiating with Germans when they were subjected to a massive air raid. The incident continues to attract controversy. The German commander had intended to make a combined assault supported by dive bombers to hit specific targets but Heinkel III general bombers were allotted to the raid, and the German land forces were unable to call them off whilst their negotiations continued. The area bombers eventually dropped around 100 tons on the medieval heart of Rotterdam’s commercial district. A square mile of the city was virtually flattened. Nearly a thousand people were killed, although war time estimates by the Allies put the figure at 25-30,000.

The incident led to the immediate surrender of Rotterdam and very shortly afterwards the Dutch government decided they could not risk other cities being bombed and sought an armistice. The British changed their bombing policy as a consequence, having previously avoided civilian industrial targets – on the 15th May they attacked the German industrial centre of the Ruhr for the first time. Continue reading “Rotterdam bombed, RAF suffer major losses”

Churchill offers "Blood, toil, tears and sweat"

German tanks in forest
German armour was making a surprise advance through the Ardenne Forest that would outflank Allied forces that had moved forward into Belgium.

Events in France were now unfolding very rapidly. The German ‘Blitzkrieg’ was making dramatic progress, unnerving the French government and many in the senior military command. Winston Churchill would make six visits to France during the following weeks, attempting to find a way to help the French keep fighting. There was a danger that those at home would be equally unnerved by the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht.



Churchill, on his third day as Prime Minister, addressed the House of Commons for the first time as war leader:

To form an Administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself, but it must be remembered that we are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations, … have to be made here at home.

In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope at any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, all make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.

You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire; no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

German troops on road in belgium 1940
German troops continue to march forward into Belgium while disarmed Prisoners of War are sent to the rear

Meanwhile in Belgium some of the British Army had reached their allotted positions and were preparing their defences:

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

Monday 13th May.

We spent today digging and made very good progress all round. The position was a good one on the forward slopes of a ridge over the River Lasne. The ground on this side of the river was not so good, being thickly wooded and obscuring the obstacle. 12 Pl [Platoon] were on right, P.S.M. Fleming, Peter 10 Pl. , and P.S.M. Kerr 11 Pl on left. A certain amount of enemy bombing and machine-gunning. Enemy bombing of Ottenburg which we could see from our position. Great difficulty in getting some of the Belgians to evacuate: this was finally done. Spent another night in the woods without any discomfort. Coy. nil marching. Self 4 miles.

Entry No.4, for the first entry see 10th May 1940.

See TNA WO 217/15