RAF over Dunkirk beaches – Captain Leah is captured

2nd Lieutenant David Callander in the full dress uniform of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders at his graduation from Sandhurst in 1939. He won the Military Cross at La Bassee, near Dunkirk, as commander of the 1st Battalion’s anti-tank platoon. Their three two pounder guns accounted for 21 German tanks.
A working party of the 1st Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders at Aix in France, November 1939.
A working party of the 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders at Aix in France, November 1939.
Men of the 1st Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders digging trenches at Aix, France, November 1939.
Men of the 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders digging trenches at Aix, France, November 1939.

Captain Leah’s remarkable diary of just eighteen days in the movements of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in France 1940 is representative of many in the British Expeditionary Force. The move forward from France into Belgium, the attempt to establish new positions and then the confusing and exhausting retreat as they sought to avoid being outflanked. The transition from peacetime army to experiencing shellfire for the first time and then rapidly on to full scale murderous battle, with the loss of many friends and colleagues.

In just one respect the The 1st Battalion the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were different, they were members of the Highland Brigade in France 1940, the last unit of the the British Army to fight in kilts.

There were many examples of successful British actions like the counterattack at Escaut that might well have have led to further successes had the whole British force not been completely outflanked by the German breakthrough to the coast. They were not a beaten army. Captain Leah’s diary reveals just how lucky some were to get away to Dunkirk and how only slightly less luck led to long years as a prisoner of war:

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

28th May

Floundering about in mud and water and crossing last wire fences. Kilt badly torn. However we covered about 7 1/2 miles and dawn found us on outskirts of Laventie. By this time we were more or less clear of enemy except for odd motor cyclists but very tired and hungry. Here made unfortunate mistake of deciding to lay up for another day until dark. Poured with rain and had to take to houses – for a few hours but got out again about 8 a.m. Spoke to Frenchman and family who had seen no enemy and then took cover in orchard. In afternoon surrounded by Coy of enemy. Half of us asleep at this time. Henderson hit and several enemy. Kerr’s platoon got clear away and are home.

[Captain Leah was taken prisoner by the Germans]

Taken to H.Q. either of Bde or Division. Asked if we told troops that Germans shot all English and French prisoners. Pr. civilians. Given a plate of noodle which I badly needed. Searched by probably Intelligence Officer and left with equipment. Raining hard all afternoon and spent unpleasant hour on motor bike before getting into truck, soaked to the skin and troops not much better. Travelled back along column to Reception Camp.

[space] police – given bread and three bars of chocolate amongst us. Three Royal Scots and several French here. Buchanan threw a fit. Embussed again and taken on to Bethune. Still soaked but fire of sorts going and got dry by following morning. Extremely hungry this evening and went to sleep at 8 p.m.

Here separated from troops but still in same camp.

[added note] Turner and Nicholson hit on 27th in field outside La Bassee. Henderson hit Laventie.

28th. 8 miles [marching].

[Entry No.19, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

At present we have little more information about Captain R. Leah whose short diary was deposited with the War Office sometime after the war.

Spitfire Mk I in flight, May 1940.
Spitfire Mk I in flight, May 1940.

Meanwhile the RAF were doing their utmost to provide air cover to the evacuation now under way from Dunkirk.

Hugh Dundas, nineteen years old, had only just completed his training and been posted to 616 Squadron. He had flown his first Spitfire in March 1940. On 27th May they had moved to an airfield at Rochford, Essex, so that they were closer to the beaches at Dunkirk. His memoir, published in 1988, opens with a typically vivid , and candid, account of his first day in action.

The two Skuas of the Fleet Air Arm swooped by in the opposite direction, twisting and jinking. In the headlong manner of their flight there was something reminiscent of agitated sheep running from dogs. And killer dogs indeed were at their heels. I saw the black crosses and the swastikas, plain and clear, and recognized them as Messerschmitt 109S.

Fascinated, I craned my neck to watch the five planes, now diving away behind and to starboard. From the leading Messerschmitt came thin trails of grey smoke as the pilot fired his guns. The group faded into specks which, in an instant, disappeared beneath the thick black smoke cloud rising from Dunkirk and stretching down the Channel for seventy or eighty miles.

Perhaps this little cameo lasted before my eyes for about five seconds, it was a lightning personal introduction to the use of guns in earnest and to the terrifying quality of air fighting. But I did not at that time have so much as one second to reflect upon it, for I was suddenly aware that the formation in which I was flying as last man in the last section was breaking up in violent manoeuvre. My own section leader, George Moberley, wheeled round in a climbing turn. As I followed I heard a confusion of excited voices on the radio. Then I saw another Messerschmitt, curving round. It had a bright yellow nose. Again I saw the ripples of grey smoke breaking away from it and the lights were winking and flashing from the propeller hub and engine cowling. Red blobs arced lazily through the air between us, accelerating dramatically as they approached and streaked close by, across my wing.

With sudden, sickening, stupid fear I realized that I was being fired on and I pulled my Spitfire round hard, so that the blood was forced down from my head. The thick curtain of blackout blinded me for a moment and I felt the aircraft juddering on the brink of a stall. Straightening out, the curtain lifted and I saw a confusion of planes, diving and twisting. My eyes focused on two more Messerschmitts, flying in quite close formation, curving down towards me. Again I saw the ripple of smoke and the wink of lights; again I went into a blackout turn and again the bullets streaked harmlessly by.

At some stage in the next few seconds the silhouette of a Messerschmitt passed across my windscreen and I fired my guns in battle for the first time a full deflection shot which, I believe, was quite ineffectual.

I was close to panic in the bewilderment and hot fear of that first dog fight. Fortunately instinct drove me to keep turning and turning, twisting my neck all the time to look for the enemy behind. Certainly the consideration which was uppermost in my mind was the desire to stay alive.

‘A sincere desire to engage the enemy’ – that, Winston Churchill has written, was the criterion by which Lord Haig had judged his fellow soldiers. That, above all else, was the impulse which Churchill himself admired and demanded in fighting men. I found out that day, 28 May 1940, over Dunkirk, in my first close encounter with Britain’s enemies, how hard it is to live up to that criterion. When it comes to the point, a sincere desire to stay alive is all too likely to get the upper hand. Certainly, that was the impulse which consumed me at that moment that day. And that was to be the impulse which I had to fight against, to try and try and try again to overcome, during the years which followed.

See Hugh Dundas: Flying Start: A Fighter Pilot’s War Years

For more on the situation at Dunkirk the Open University has an interactive guide..

A Royal Navy destroyer on its way to Dunkirk, May 1940.
A Royal Navy destroyer on its way to Dunkirk, May 1940.

Massacre as situation worsens for the BEF

Propaganda leaflet with map of encircled Dunkirk
A German propaganda leaflet that fairly accurately portrays the situation on 27th May 1940

The 2nd Norfolk Battalion had been ordered to fight to the last man and the last bullet in their stand at La Bassee Canal. By the 27th May many were dead and their wounded had only the most rudimentary care in a first aid post established in a barn. When they ran out of ammunition surrender became inevitable. The 97 survivors were marched in ranks of three into a field near Druries Farm near Le Paradis which had been their base. Signaller Albert Pooley, A Company, 2nd Norfolks was one of the men who surrendered to the SS Totenkopf Regiment under the command of SS Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein.

There were a hundred of us prisoners marching in column of threes. We turned off the dusty French road through a gateway and into a meadow beside the buildings of a farm.

I saw, with one of the nastiest feelings I’ve ever had in my life, two heavy machine-guns inside the meadow. They were manned and pointing at the head of our column. I felt as though an icy hand gripped my stomach.

The guns began to spit fire and even as the front men began to fall I said fiercely, “This can’t be. They can’t do this to us!” For a few seconds the cries and shrieks of our stricken men drowned the cracking of the guns. Men fell like grass before a scythe.

The invisible blade came nearer and then swept through me. I felt a terrific searing pain in my left leg and wrist and pitched forward in a red world of tearing agony. My scream of pain mingled with the cries of my mates but even as I fell forward into a heap of dying men the thought stabbed my brain, “If I ever get out of here the swine who did this will pay for it”.

Pooley was shot twice more in the leg when the SS went through the pile of men to administer the coup de grâce. He survived along with one other man, William O’Callaghan, concealed under the bodies of dead men. They escaped from the scene and were later taken prisoner by another German unit. They spent the war as P.O.W.s. but Albert Pooley was repatriated in 1943 because of his disabling wounds. He then discovered that the British Military authorities would not believe his account of the massacre, they did not believe that the Germans would behave like this.

It was only when his account was corroborated when O’Callaghan was released in 1945 that an investigation began. Pooley finally had the satisfaction of giving evidence against Fritz Knöchlein in a War Crimes Tribunal convened in 1948. Knöchlein was interrogated at the ‘London Cage’ where he alleged that he was mistreated , but he was convicted and subsequently hanged.

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

British and French prisoners
British and French prisoners being marched back from the area of the crossing of the La Bassee Canal. 27 May 1940.

Most of the British Expeditionary Force tried desperately to find a means to avoid surrender, even though the opportunities to get away seemed very slender indeed:

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

Monday 27th May

French tanks put in attack this morning with certain amount of success. Hear that “A” Coy were unsuccessful last night and lost heavily, but know nothing definite. Bn. front in the town is still intact, hut I hear that enemy are through on left flank as well as right. About 1pm went to “D” Coy H.Q. as we were out of touch with the Battalion. Charles [—] was also there with some more hopeful news of French attack in the south. Had some very good brandy there.

Runner suddenly arrived with a verbal message from the C.O. to the effect that Camerons were to withdraw immediately. We commenced to withdraw about 1.45 but not with a great deal of hope as we knew that enemy were round on both sides and probably behind us. We intended to head across country for Laventie and Sailly Bridge. Having passed the church on the main road we turned off into a lane and thence across country due north.

First I directed C.S.M. and the whole party with me less Cpl Hamilton’s sec to carry on to the first bound and waited on the main road for the remainder to come up which they did some 15-20 minutes later. Mainwaring and P.S.M. Kerr arrived with remainder of 10 and 11 Pl’s and we started off. By this time the first party was out of sight. Had got about 300 yds when confronted by several tanks and had to get down in the field and available ditches.

In my ditch were remains of original 10 Pl., Sgts Turner and Watson, Ptes Leidlar, Gillespie, Nicholson, Buchanan, Elvin. Opened fire on tank with Bren and unfortunately A/T [anti-tank] Rifle jammed and striker broke. Turner and Nicholson there hit. Ditch very uncomfortable with about one foot of water in it. We stayed there from 2 p.m. till nightfall. At 10 p.m. Tanks continued firing over us and M.G. opened from the main road on our left. Occasional shell landed in our field. Enemy moving up fast on both sides and we were completely surrounded, but apparently undiscovered.

Enemy 150 yds away on either side. Have a good supply of cigarettes and fair supply of chocolate. Fortunately the day was warm but it was unpleasant and we spent a cold evening. Turner and Nicholson in a bad way. Could see enemy several times in houses on right and thought ourselves seen. No sign of D or C Companies, but Leidlar told me D had turned back to original position. It later transpired they had tried to get out of La Bassee by another route.

At 10.15 pm. appeared dark enough to get away and we started off in two parties. Failed to find any sign of Coy H.Q. and C.S.M’s party. Enemy dotted all over country side and frequently passed within 20 yds of them, had torches shone on us and were hailed but managed to get through without a mishap. Terrible night.

[Entry No.19, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

An excellent summary of the invasion of France can be found in the West Point History of World War II, an invaluable guide to the whole war, which I reviewed in 2015. This history has contains many maps and charts that help to explain the campaign:

blitzkrieg-map-2

Calais surrenders to Germans

Calais May 1940 after the fierce Anglo French defensive battle to hold up the Germans attacking from the west.
Destruction in Calais and the graves of French troops.
British dead immediately after the battle in Calais.

A Brigade of British troops had been hurriedly landed at Calais on 22nd and 23rd May the to seek to halt the Germans encirclement from the West towards Dunkirk. Subjected to fierce assaults from a Panzer Division they were forced into ever smaller defensive area, eventually holding out in the 17th century Citadel designed by Vauban. Colonel R.T Holland describes the last hours in the H.Q. :

Sunday 26th

At 0500 hrs combined British and French H.Q. moved into the vaulted cellar at the north-west corner of the ramparts. The Old Town and Citadel were subjected to an intense dive-bombing air attack from about 0800 hrs to about 0930 hrs.The bombs made no effect on our H.Q. cellar our appreciation of the engineering skill of the great VAUBAN was thus enhanced.

About 1200 hrs I visited H.Q. 1/R.B. at the Gare Maritime, and went on to the wooden pier beyond, where a naval drifter was embarking the last party of wounded to be evacuated to ENGLAND. I handed the captain of the drifter a message tar the War Office giving our situation, and received from him our last message from the War Office, which contained the words “Every hour you hold out helps to save the B.E.F.”

By the morning of 26th Commandant LETELLIER had organised under available officers the hundreds of French Army stragglers, who had gathered in the cellars of the Citadel since 20th. The few British details in the Citadel (A.A.R.A. and Royal Marines) were allotted to the defence of the N.W. corner of the ramparts) the rest of the Citadel perimeter was defended by the French, who put up a stout defence, when the attack on the Citadel came in the afternoon.

The enemy finally forced the south gate. Brig. NICH0LS0N end I and other H.Q. personnel surrendered about 1515 hrs. During the day our troops in the town were gradually driven back to the area of the BOULEVARD DES ALLIES and the GARE MARITIME, not only by the enemy forces advancing through the town, but also by an enemy thrust along the coast from the east. By the evening all units had been forced to surrender.

… I was shortly afterwards marched off with Brig. NICHOLSON to the German Regimental H.Q. in the THEATRE (in the PLACE ALBERT 1ER). On the way a German officer, who passed us, said to Brig. NICHOLSON in French: “Vous avez battu tres courageusement.” The same sentiments were repeated at the German Regimental H.Q. Here, also, a German officer expressed surprise that we had had no artillery.

Royal Marine Bill Balmer had a rather different perspective of the battle. His unit had been sent over from Chatham to man the perimeter line while other troops were evacuated. He was also based in the Citadel:

It had been severely damaged in the fighting which made it ideal for fighting from. It was full of rubbish and the Colour Sergeant Reid accompanying us thought this was ideal, just as long as we didn’t look up or move when the German aircraft flew over our position. The German spotter planes were constantly passing overhead and we used the rubbish to camouflage our position. Colour Sergeant Reid made sure we kept our heads and feet covered at all times and we were warned never to look up at the spotter planes as the white of our faces would have given our positions away.

The other Machine gun team was behind our position to our left. We could hear the machine gun firing but such was the confusion no one told us it was our other team. At one stage No.2 Gun team went forward of our position and were killed.

I myself had a very busy seventy-two hours at Calais before we surrendered to the Germans. No sleep, hardly anything to eat or drink. The pair of us worked a four-hour shift behind the gun but there was little respite for the three days. As soon as I saw any movement I would kick my partner awake and fire the gun. It was his job to reload the gun when necessary. We were sleeping rough because sleeping bags had yet to be issued to fighting troops in those early days.

I saw many horrible sights at Calais. Men were blown to bits by Stuka bombs, artillery fire and mortar fire. The worst scene I saw was No.2 gun team and a rifle section; twelve young men or should I say boys, blown to bits by a Stuka bomb.

Our main task in the Citadel was to cover the railway line crossroads and stop German foot soldiers and vehicles from approaching the harbour. We knew where the Germans were waiting to break through and we were successful in stopping them for the three days.

If the Germans managed to cross the railway lines they would have overwhelmed our troops in the harbour. As soon as we saw any movement on the other side of the railway lines we used five or six round bursts of fire to keep them back.

Ping

On Sunday morning at about 8am, Colour Sergeant Reid said to me, ‘I’ve made a cup of tea. And there’s a cup sitting there for you. I will take over the gun’. I stood up and walked over to get the cup of tea. As I stood up I heard a ‘ping’ and thought little of it. The Colour Sergeant said to me later, ‘You were lucky. After you stood up and walked away a bullet hit the gun’. Sure enough the bullet had hit one of the tripod legs. If I had been lying behind the gun the bullet would have caught me between the shoulders.

I never felt anything until we were on the second day of the POW march on Monday evening. A friend asked me, ‘What’s wrong with your putty?’ I looked down and my putty was covered in blood. There was a sliver of shrapnel stuck in the putty and it had worked itself into my leg. I worked out that it must have happened when I stood up from behind the gun to go for a cup of tea on Sunday morning.

The Germans classed that as a wound and without me knowing it word was sent to my mother in Ballymoney that I was wounded in action and captured.

See Bill Ballmer: My Service Life 1939-1979, available to read online.

Another account of this fateful day in Calais did not appear until 2016. The memoirs of Lieutenant Philip Pardoe King’s Royal Rifle Corps ‘From Calais to Colditz’ was one of my featured books of the year and I was pleased to add another account of the action that day:

Here and there a Verey light was red into the air such as we had seen on the first morning patrol. The forward troops were signalling to their gunners who usually replied by plastering our positions more heavily than ever with their mortars. The nauseating smell of explosives permeated the air. Despite the noise and discomfort, the sand in my clothing, cracked lips and scraped hands, I found time for a short sleep.

See ‘From Calais to Colditz’ for the full excerpt.

Meanwhile the situation for the British Expeditionary Force was becoming increasingly precarious. The evacuation from Dunkirk was just getting under way but there were still many troops who were a long way inland. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were amongst them:

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

Sunday May 26th

Still fairly quiet this morning. 10 Pl took up positions in house and factory on main road and canal, just beside “D” Company. Very good French M.G. Platoon. French Infantry on our right but did not see much of them.

Things livened up towards midday. French seem to have gone on right. Am told Worcesters have taken their place but continually failed to get in touch with them. Enemy through on our right, 1 sec of Worcesters back on our rt hand platoon Enemy in view out of wood, but withdrew under French M.G. fire. Very pleasant Fr officer in charge of M.G.s but he is rather worried about the situation, so am I.

Great difficulty in getting into communication with Bn H.Q. but finally learn that “A” Coy are to C/a [Counter Attack] on our right. Hear them going in this morning, but with what results do not now. Lot of shelling.

The Church steeple came down today, several men from 10 Pl wounded and L/c Graham badly so. Got them all away. Buoyed up with very hopeful news of unspecified nature from Tony acting adjutant.

[Entry No.18, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

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.

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 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”

British troops take up positions in Belgium

A low level attack on a German Convoy by British light bombers, Fairey Battles: 12th May 1940 S.W. of Luzenburg
Low level air attack
Another shot from the same sequence:
note the German troops running away from their vehicles across the fields.
Fairey Battles of No. 226 Squadron RAF undergoing servicing on the flight line at Reims-Champagne. The aircraft on the right, K9183 'MQ-R', was shot down by ground aircraft fire while attacking enemy columns south-west of Luxembourg on 10 May 1940. Its pilot died of his wounds, but the other two crew members survived.
Fairey Battles of No. 226 Squadron RAF undergoing servicing on the flight line at Reims-Champagne. The aircraft on the right, K9183 ‘MQ-R’, was shot down by ground aircraft fire while attacking enemy columns south-west of Luxembourg on 10 May 1940. Its pilot died of his wounds, but the other two crew members survived.

As the shooting war finally began it was the RAF who were immediately thrust into battle. Some units would suffer grievous losses as they attempted to go up against the Luftwaffe in outmoded aircraft. The Fairey Battle, a single engined monoplane fighter-bomber with three crew, had only been in service for two years but soon proved to be a hopeless match against single seater German fighters.

More promising was the Hurricane. Although some RAF squadrons had had less than a month to become familiarised with the aircraft after converting from biplane Gladiators in April, they were soon proving their worth. They were hopelessly outnumbered however. RAF Fighter Command was still coming up to strength and would prove very reluctant to release more aircraft to the continent.

Twenty-three year old Paul Richey had already quickly shot down two Me 110 in his Hurricane on the 12th May when he tangled with another three:

I turned, but they were still there; so were the other two from above. In a moment I was in the centre of what seemed a stack of 110s, although there were in fact only five. I knew I had scarcely the speed or height in my wooden-blader to dive away and beat it, so I decided to stay and make the best of it. Although I was more manoeuvrable at this height than the Huns, I found it impossible to get in an astern shot because every time I almost got one lined up tracers came whipping past from another on my tail.

All I could do was to keep twisting and turning, and when a 110 got behind me make as tight a turn as possible, almost spinning with full engine, and fly straight at him, fire a quick burst, then push the stick forward and dive under his nose. I would then pull-up in a steep climbing turn to meet the next gentleman.

Obviously they couldn’t all attack at once without colliding, but several times I was at the apex of a cone formed by the cannon and machine-gun fire of three of them. Their tactics consisted mostly of diving, climbing and taking full deflection shots at me. Their shooting seemed wild. This manoeuvre was easily dealt with by turning towards them and popping over their heads, forcing them to steepen their climb until they stalled and had to fall away.

But I was not enjoying this marathon. Far from it. My mouth was getting drier and drier, and I was feeling more and more desperate and exhausted. Would they run out of ammunition? Would they push off? Would help come? I knew I couldn’t hold out much longer.

After what seemed an age (actually it turned out to be at least fifteen minutes, which is an exceptionally long time for a dogfight) I was flying down head-on at a 110 which was climbing up to me. We both fired – and I thought I had left it too late and we would collide. I pushed the stick forward violently.

There was a stunning explosion right in front of me. For an instant my mind went blank. My (aircraft seemed to be falling, limp on the controls. Then, as black smoke poured out of the nose and enveloped the hood, and a hot blast and a flicker of reflected flame crept into the dark cockpit, I said ‘Come on — out you go!’, pulled the pin out of my harness, wrenched open the hood and hauled myself head-first out to the right.

The wind pressed me tightly against the side of the aircraft, my legs still inside. I caught hold of the trailing edge of the wing and heaved myself out. As I fell free and somersaulted I felt as if a giant had me on the end of a length of wire, whirling me round and round through the air.

I fumbled for and pulled the rip-cord and was pulled the right way up with a violent jerk that winded me. My head was pressed forward by the parachute back-pad that had slipped up behind, and I couldn’t look up to see if the parachute was OK. I had no sensation of movement – just a slight breeze as I swung gently to and fro. For all I knew the thing might be on fire or not properly open.

I heard the whirr of Hun engines and saw three of the 110s circle me. I looked at the ground and saw a shower of flaming sparks as something exploded in an orchard far below: my late aeroplane.

Paul Richey would go on to shoot down another seven aircraft before he was badly wounded on the 16th May – he therefore missed the Battle of Britain. His experiences in these few days in France would later become the best seller Fighter Pilot when it was published in 1941.

Hawker Hurricane Mark I, N2358 'Z', of No. 1 Squadron RAF is refuelled while undergoing an engine check at Vassincourt.
Hawker Hurricane Mark I, N2358 ‘Z’, of No. 1 Squadron RAF is refuelled while undergoing an engine check at Vassincourt.
Once the Blitzkrieg had begun, the Hurricane squadrons in France were plunged into almost constant action, flying interception patrols and providing escort for RAF light bombers. Their airfields were subject to frequent Luftwaffe strafing attacks, with little or no warning. Here, personnel of No 85 Squadron at Lille-Seclin check air activity overhead while in the background two Hurricanes sit at 'stand-by', their pilots strapped in ready for immediate take-off, 10-12 May 1940.
Once the Blitzkrieg had begun, the Hurricane squadrons in France were plunged into almost constant action, flying interception patrols and providing escort for RAF light bombers. Their airfields were subject to frequent Luftwaffe strafing attacks, with little or no warning. Here, personnel of No 85 Squadron at Lille-Seclin check air activity overhead while in the background two Hurricanes sit at ‘stand-by’, their pilots strapped in ready for immediate take-off, 10-12 May 1940.

Meanwhile the British Expeditionary Force were still moving up to the front in Belgium. There was still time to enjoy a good lunch and admire the countryside:

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

Sunday 12th May

We entrained about 5.15 a.m. in the morning and were given coffee by the family and had breakfast from the Company Cookhouse. The road was crowded with transport and proceeded at snail’s pace most of the way. Self, C.S.M. Maclean and Cpl Cameron in 8 cwt [8 hundred weight truck or lorry] then the rest of “B” Coy – Bde H.Q. – remainder of Battalion. Fortunately no enemy bombing although the effects of yesterday’s efforts could frequently be seen. Continue reading “British troops take up positions in Belgium”

In the Far East the battle against Japan goes on

A few yards behind the front lines on Okinawa, fighting men of the US Armys 77th Infantry division listen to radio reports of Germanys surrender on May 8, 1945. Their battle hardened faces indicate the impassiveness with which they received the news of the victory on a far distant front. One minute after this photo was taken, they returned to their combat post, officially however, American forces on Okinawa celebrated the end of the war in Europe by training every ship and shore battery on a Japanese target and firing one shell simultaneously and precisely at midnight.
A few yards behind the front lines on Okinawa, fighting men of the US Armys 77th Infantry division listen to radio reports of Germanys surrender on May 8, 1945. Their battle hardened faces indicate the impassiveness with which they received the news of the victory on a far distant front. One minute after this photo was taken, they returned to their combat post, officially however, American forces on Okinawa celebrated the end of the war in Europe by training every ship and shore battery on a Japanese target and firing one shell simultaneously and precisely at midnight.

The war against Japan now seemed inevitably to have the same outcome as the war against Germany. An equally unrelenting grind towards the end also seemed to be in prospect – which looked very likely to be even more bloody than the end in Germany.

Even as the guns fell silent in Europe the military planners were looking closely at which units could soon be shipped out to the Pacific and prepare for the invasion of mainland Japan. Only a tiny group of very senior figures in Britain and America had any inkling that a new weapon might just provide an alternative route to end the war.

Two main battlegrounds dominated the remaining fighting. For the Americans it was Okinawa:

On 8 May Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally. We were told this momentous news, but considering our own peril and misery, no one cared much. “So what” was typical of the remarks I heard around me. We were resigned only to the fact the Japanese would fight to total extinction on Okinawa, as they had elsewhere, and that Japan would have to be invaded with the same gruesome prospects. Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon.

The main thing that impressed us about V-E Day was a terrific, thundering artillery and naval gunfire barrage that went swishing, roaring, and rumbling towards the Japanese. I thought it was in preparation for the next day’s attack. Years later I read that the barrage had been fired on enemy targets at noon for its destructive effect on them but also as a salute to V-E Day.

See E.B. Sledge: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

“VE” PLUS TWO – Two days after the victory in Europe was celebrated the Marines of the First Division, fighting the do-or-die Japs hill by hill in their drive for Naha, capital city of Okinawa, wait on the crest of one slope while a barrage of phosphorous shells explodes among the Japanese positions on the farther incline. After the bombardment, the Leatherneck infantry will commence their push across the intervening valley to attack the enemy.
“VE” PLUS TWO – Two days after the victory in Europe was celebrated the Marines of the First Division, fighting the do-or-die Japs hill by hill in their drive for Naha, capital city of Okinawa, wait on the crest of one slope while a barrage of phosphorous shells explodes among the Japanese positions on the farther incline. After the bombardment, the Leatherneck infantry will commence their push across the intervening valley to attack the enemy.

For the British the campaign in Burma had finally turned the corner. The 14th Army had been racing down south to take the major port of Rangoon before the Monsoon came – and everything seized up. On the 2nd May Gurkha paratroopers had surprised the Japanese with an airborne attack and the city had fallen soon afterwards. With the port in their hands it was very much easier for the Allies to consolidate their position.

Infantry and Sherman tanks under fire near a village during the advance south from Meiktila to Rangoon, 3 May 1945.
Infantry and Sherman tanks under fire near a village during the advance south from Meiktila to Rangoon, 3 May 1945.
The Advance on Rangoon March - May 1945: Priest self-propelled guns in action on the road to Rangoon.
The Advance on Rangoon March – May 1945: Priest self-propelled guns in action on the road to Rangoon.
A Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII of No. 155 Squadron RAF, creates a cloud of dust as the pilot opens up his throttle prior to take of at Tabingaung, Burma.
A Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII of No. 155 Squadron RAF, creates a cloud of dust as the pilot opens up his throttle prior to take of at Tabingaung, Burma.
Burmese villagers help extricate a jeep from a river near Rangoon, 10 May 1945.
Burmese villagers help extricate a jeep from a river near Rangoon, 10 May 1945.

‘Consolidating the position’ fell to the infantry. The Border Regiment, from the far north of England, were out in front. George MacDonald Fraser remembered events in his distinctive way:

[Y]ou did feel the isolation, the sense of back of beyond. Perhaps that came, in part, from being called “the Forgotten Army” – a colourful newspaper phrase which we bandied about with derision; we were not forgotten by those who mattered, our families and our county. But we knew only too well that we were a distant side-show, that our war was small in the public mind beside the great events of France and Germany.

Oh, God, I’ll never forget the morning when we were sent out to lay ambushes, which entailed first an attack on a village believed to be Jap-held. We were lined up for a company advance, and were waiting in the sunlight, dumping our small packs and fixing bayonets, and Hutton and Long John were moving among us reminding us quietly to see that our magazines were charged and that everyone was right and ready, and Nixon was no doubt observing that we’d all get killed, and someone, I know, was mut- tering the old nonsense “Sister Anna will carry the banner, Sister Kate will carry the plate, Sister Maria right marker, Salvation Army, by the left — charge!” when a solitary Spitfire came roaring out of nowhere and Victory-rolled above us.

We didn’t get it; on the rare occasions when we had air support the Victory roll came after the fight, not before. While we were wondering, an officer – he must have been a new arrival, and a right clown — ran out in front of the company and shouted, with enthusiasm: “Men! The war in Europe is over!”.

There was a long silence, while we digested this, and looked through the heat haze to the village where Jap might be waiting,and I’m not sure that the officer wasn’t waving his hat and shouting hip, hooray.

The silence continued, and then someone laughed, and it ran down the extended line in a great torrent of mirth, punctuated by cries of “Git the boogers oot ’ere!” and “Ev ye told Tojo, like?” and “Hey, son, is it awreet if we a’ gan yam?” [Cumbrian dialect – “go home”] Well, he must have been new, and yet to get his priorities right, but it was an interesting pointer.

But if we resented, and took perverse pleasure in moaning (as only Cumbrians can) about our relative unimportance, there was a hidden satisfaction in it, too. Set a man apart and he will start to feel special. We did; we knew we were different, and that there were no soldiers quite like us anywhere.

Partly it sprang from the nature of our war. How can I put it? We were freer, and our own masters in a way which is commonly denied to infantry; we were a long way from the world of battle-dress serge and tin hats and the huge mechanised war juggernauts and the waves of bombers and artillery.

When Slim stood under the trees at Meiktila and told us: “Rangoon is where the big boats sail from”, the idea that we might one day get on one of those boats and sail halfway round the world to home might seem unreal, but it was a reminder that we were unique (and I don’t give a dam who knows it). We were Fourteenth Army, the final echo of Kipling’s world, the very last British soldiers in the old imperial tradition.

I don’t say we were happy to be in Burma, because we weren’t, but we knew that Slim was right when he said: “Some day, you’ll be proud to say, ‘I was there’.”

Mind you, as Grandarse remarked, we’d have to get out of the bloody place first.

See George MacDonald Fraser: Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II

A group of sick and emaciated British POWs in Rangoon prison after liberation, 3 May 1945.
A group of sick and emaciated British POWs in Rangoon prison after liberation, 3 May 1945.
Liberated POWs at Rangoon jail, 3 May 1945. Major McLeod, a Canadian doctor who served with the Indian Medical Service, inspects one of his patients, Corporal J Usher, whose leg he had to amputate during their captivity.
Liberated POWs at Rangoon jail, 3 May 1945. Major McLeod, a Canadian doctor who served with the Indian Medical Service, inspects one of his patients, Corporal J Usher, whose leg he had to amputate during their captivity.
Off-duty soldiers enjoying the sights of Rangoon's pagodas, 13 May 1945.
Off-duty soldiers enjoying the sights of Rangoon’s pagodas, 13 May 1945.

US 71st Division still in combat as it pushes east

These men are scouting out the enemy for the 13th Armored Division, Third U.S. Army. 2 May 1945
These men are scouting out the enemy for the 13th Armored Division, Third U.S. Army. 2 May 1945
US Army 2nd Infantry "Indian" Division enter Domazlice, Western Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, May 5th, 1945
US Army 2nd Infantry “Indian” Division enter
Domazlice, Western Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, May 5th, 1945

Sergeant Dean P. Joy was with 5th Infantry Regiment, 71st Infantry Division, the American unit that penetrated furthest east in the European theatre. On the 5th May his battalion were driven in a column of trucks through Austria. They expected the war was nearly over and they passed many cheering civilians, some of whom threw flowers, and who acted “just like if they had been waiting to be liberated for years”, like the French the previous year.

They passed a column of over 2,000 German troops passing the other way, still fully armed. “No shooting unless shot at and an officer gives the order”. Then it was their job to move forward to meet the Russians:

I was a bit nervous when I heard Wooten say that our 2nd Battalion would go on across the river, knowing that we would probably meet the Russians over there. But other than that, I was elated, like all the rest of my buddies, to think that our war was surely over and done with at last. But it was not quite over.

It was probably about noon when our convoy crossed the bridge to the east, once again following the regimental jeeps. On a long stretch of highway, with hills rising to our left and right, a battery of dreaded 88s opened fire. I heard a screech-whoosh-blam as the first of several shells whizzed by our truck and exploded somewhere to the rear. Then those gunners got the range, and we heard the next two or three shells slam into, or very close to, the jeeps up ahead.

Our trucks instantly braked to a jarring stop, and an officer – it may have been Colonel Wooten himself — ran back along the convoy, pointing and shouting, “Second Battalion off the trucks! Everybody off! George Company, off the road to the left!”

Under Captain Neal’s direction, our entire company piled off of our eight or nine trucks as fast as we could and took cover in the culvert on the left side of the road. Bailey’s squad and my squad were told to leave our mortars on the truck, and were sent up the ditch to the front of the stalled convoy. We were accompanied by one of the company’s machine-gun squads.

A gruesome, never-to-be-forgotten sight sickened me as we ran past the jeep that had been in the lead. It had received a direct hit from an 88, and slumped behind its steering wheel was what was left of the driver — just his bloody, headless torso.

On the other side of the road we saw two or three officers, including our battalion executive officer, Maj. Irving Heymont, hunkered down behind a machine gun that was firing short bursts at a line of trees on a hill to the right. As we were to learn later, they were firing at two 88s that were partially hidden up on that hill.

Sergeant Joy and his section narrowly missed being hit by an artillery round as they went forward to take out the 88s in a flanking movement.

See Dean P. Joy: Sixty Days in Combat: An Infantryman’s Memoir of World War II in Europe

Meanwhile back in France Supreme Allied Commander had received a German delegation trying to negotiate. They were were not authorised to surrender and were sent back to Flensburg, the temporary German capital where Doenitz was based. Eisenhower’s Naval aide, Harry C Butcher describes the circumstances:

At dinner Ike said the reason the Germans were stalling for time was to let Germans escape from Czechoslovakia, where they are being overrun by the Russians. It seems German high officials had sent their wives and children to Czechoslovakia to avoid our heavy bombings of German cities. Now that area, once regarded safe, is one in which there is great fear.

Ike also detects a scheme of the Germans to get the Western Allies to accept a surrender and thus create a schism with the Russians. In the German mind, he thought, there is the desperate hope that we might yet succumb to Goebbels’ old propaganda about the Bolsheviks.

Once the Supreme Commander has the proper German representatives with suitable authority to act, he does not propose to let them dilly-dally. Furthermore, he wants the Gennan Army to know this time that it has been completely and decisively beaten in the field, so there will not be the cry that was heard after World War I that it was the German home front that caved in and not the Army.

General Ike wants to seal the Allied victory so completely that no one in Germany, civilian, soldier, airman, or sailor, will fail to appreciate the fact that the “superrace” has had the hell beaten out of it. He doesn’t want our kids to be left an inheritance of World War III.

See My Three Years With Eisenhower: The Personal Diary of Captain Harry C. Butcher, USNR, Naval Aide to General Eisenhower, 1942 to 1945

The 2nd Division are welcomed as they enter what the Germans called Bohemia but soon reverted back to Czechoslovakia. The German population was largely evicted after the war ended.
The 2nd Division are welcomed as they enter what the Germans called Bohemia but soon reverted back to Czechoslovakia. The German population was largely evicted after the war ended.
The progress of the 2nd Division was slowed by booby traps and lone snipers.
The progress of the 2nd Division was slowed by booby traps and lone snipers.