The Buffs – France 1940

Extracted from Historical Records of The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) 3rd Foot 1919-1948 C.R.B. Knight – chapter IV, pages 46 to 62

The 2nd Battalion was earmarked on mobilization to join the Corps Troops of Lieut.-General Sir John Dill’s I Corps in the role of a pioneer battalion. The fact that the headquarters of that formation were located at Aldershot was the cause of a number of hitches in the course of collecting mobilization equipment, the distance from Pembroke Dock militating against the smooth running of the organization. In so far as personnel were concerned, however, all went according to plan. The full complement of reservists reported to time and were exercised at route marching and also on the range, with excellent results. By 13th September, except for a few items of equipment still deficient, mobilization was completed, and on 16th the battalion embarked at Southampton, landing the following day at Cherbourg and proceeding thence by rail to Blain, twenty miles north-west of Nantes. Here it was joined by its transport, loaded at Newport and conveyed separately across the Channel.

The general situation at this juncture was that, with the Germans deeply committed in Poland, the likelihood of an immediate offensive against France on any great scale was small. The plan, therefore, was for the B.E.F., under the command of General Viscount Gort, to concentrate in the area of Le Mans and then move forward to its allotted position on the Franco-Belgian frontier, between Valenciennes and Lille. (See map above). Based, in view of the air menace, on the most westerly French ports, Nantes, St. Nazaire, Cherbourg and Brest, the initial force of four divisions, a tank battalion and three light armoured cavalry regiments was in process of carrying out this plan when French G.Q.G., under whose orders it was, urged it forward with all speed, indeed, before the concentration had been completed.

The Buffs were not affected by this change, for they were temporarily divorced from their allotted duty with I Corps, and for the next three weeks they were employed in preparing the sites of the petrol supply depot at Blain and the ammunition depot in the nearby Forest of Gavre. In addition to finding large working parties, the battalion was called upon for guards and – patrols, with the result that there was little rest for anyone and no opportunity for training except in the case of a few specialists.

By the first week in October I Corps was disposed in its defensive position on the frontier and the Buffs moved up to join it. On arrival they were allotted to Major-General Alexander’s 1 Division and, much to the delight of all, were attached to their old brigade of Bordon days, the 3rd, under Brigadier Curtis. Headquarters were established at Cobrieux, ten miles south-west of Lille, with B and C Companies detached at Huvie and La Feverie respectively, the latter being detailed for duty with 1 Guards Brigade.

The paramount task of the Allied forces situated in northern France was now to make good the almost complete lack of solid defences and anti-tank obstacles. These virtually ceased at the northern extremity of the Maginot Line, in the neighbourhood of Montmedy. Material was short, equipment insufficient, rain delayed the progress of the work and frost played havoc with much that had been done. True, it seemed unlikely that the Germans would attack in winter: nevertheless, an almost superhuman task lay before the troops if anything in the shape of an effective defensive position was to be completed before early spring at the latest.

When considering this defensive position, it should be remembered that although it seemed almost certain that when once the Germans advanced they would do so through Belgium, and probably through Holland also, the attitude of the former country was strictly neutral. That a policy of neutrality would deter the Germans from repeating their strategy of 1914 was most unlikely. The Belgians, nevertheless, were adamant, even refusing to take part in staff talks with the Allied high command, which was thus compelled to plan on two suppositions. The first of these was that the Germans might conceivably march unopposed through Belgium to meet the Allies on the French frontier; the second, and more likely, that in the event of invasion the Belgians would fight, and so make inevitable the advance of the Franco-British armies to their assistance, thus abandon¬ing the position upon which so much time and labour was being spent.

Till the end of December the Buffs continued to work in the area of Cobrieux and Genech, earning the highest praise for their efforts. Training was almost out of the question, but every opportunity was taken to exercise Bren and antitank. gunners, and a chance of contact with the enemy was given to three officers (Major E. P. C. Bruce, Captain F. W. B. Parry and Lieut. E. L. C. Edlmann.) and a small party of other ranks who accompanied 3 Brigade during a spell in the Saar sector of the French front. January found the battalion at Warendin, working on I Corps reserve line and providing guards and working parties on Douai aerodrome. In common with the rest of the army they suffered the rigours of a grim winter which brought veterans of the Great War recollections of similar sufferings in 1917. In February came a move to Beaumont for guard duties and more work of a nature so familiar to all ranks, but in the middle of the month the Buffs concentrated in the villages of Feuchy and Athies for a badly needed but all too short spell of collective training, which was quickly followed by a further period of pioneer work. This was to last until early May, when the battalion, which by now had returned to Beaumont, was transferred in a normal infantry role to 131 Brigade of 44 (Home Counties) Division, under the command respectively of Brigadier J. Utterson¬-Kelso and Major-General E. A. Osborne.

It might now be well to review briefly the situation outside the Western European theatre of operations since the arrival there of the B.E.F. The result of Germany’s campaign against Poland was a foregone conclusion. By the end of September 1939 Warsaw had surrendered, and, with the advance from the east of the Russians, Polish resistance had ceased by the first week in October. Not content with creating a buffer between herself and Germany at the expense of Poland, Russia, with the same object in view further north, now launched an unprovoked campaign against Finland. After a gallant resistance, the Finns were by March 1940 compelled to capitulate.

The upshot of this campaign in so far as Germany was concerned was that she quickly realized that Allied military aid, which had been proposed for Finland, could only reach that country by way of Scandinavia, where she already had designs on Norway. Furthermore, once in possession of the Norwegian coast, she would be provided with ample safe bases for her ocean raiders and the means of protecting by sea and air the ships conveying supplies of precious iron ore from northern Sweden. Accordingly, fearful of being forestalled by the Allies, she pushed on with her preparations for the invasion of Norway, although in fact the Finns had capitulated before any projects for help had materialized. The Germans stuck to their plans nevertheless, and on 9th April landed in Norway.

There followed then the ill-conceived and hastily prepared expedition designed to oust the . Germans. In this no battalion of the Buffs was concerned, but the Regiment was represented by Colonel J. F. W. Allen in the capacity of A A. and Q.M.G. Of 49 (West Riding) Division, whose H.Q. constituted the headquarters of the Allied military contingent engaged in the capture of Narvik. Further south, also, Brigadier H. de R. Morgan was in command of the lone British 148 Brigade of 49 Division, engaged in the operation initiated for the capture of Trondheim. The story of his remarkable adventures is outside the scope of this book, but it may be read in detail elsewhere. (See ” Seven Assignments “, by Brigadier Dudley Clarke.)

By the time of the withdrawal of the Allied forces from central Norway at the end of April, tension in France had risen, rumours and reports of impending German action abounded, and units and formations were at the alert. The suspense was ended when at dawn on 10th May the Germans attacked and, as had been anticipated, moved into Belgium and Holland. Plans were ready, as has been indicated, for an Allied advance into Belgium, and on the immediate appeal of that country for help the forward move began in support of the Belgian Army, disposed on the natural barrier of the Albert Canal.

The B.E.F. had by this time been increased to ten divisions, but was still woefully weak in armour, which ;consisted of no more than one brigade of tanks and the light tanks and armoured cars of the divisional cavalry regiments. Forming part of the First Group of Armies, under General Billotte, the role of Lord Gort’s force was to hold the line of the River Dyle between Louvain and Wavre, being flanked on right and left respectively by the French Seventh and First Armies. To this advanced position I and II Corps were assigned, whilst Lieut.-General Sir Ronald Adam’s III Corps, in which was 44 Division, was allotted the task of preparing defences on the river Escaut (Scheldt) some fifteen miles east of Tournai. Opposed to the Allies in Belgium was General von Rundstedt’s Army Group composed of forty-four divisions, five of which were armoured and three motorized.

The long-expected day found the 2nd Buffs, 25 officers and 732 men strong, at La Creche, two miles south of Bailleul, where, at about 10 a.m., they received a bare three hours’ notice to move into Belgium. Now that the hour had arrived it was but natural that there should be some excitement amongst all ranks, which did not contribute to the smooth working of the preparations for a hurried move. However, the example of Colonel Hamilton, his plans made and his orders given, calmly reading a novel in his orderly room, soon sobered those who had been inclined to lose their heads. At the time appointed, then, the battalion marched off in perfect order, receiving an enthusiastic welcome from the Belgians as it crossed the border. The day’s march, during the course of which it was complimented on its march discipline by the divisional commander, brought it to Cou Cou, immediately west of Menin. A move to Courtrai followed the next day, and here the battalion remained until 14th, when it pushed on to Elsegem, a mile short of the Escaut, where three days were spent on paratroop look-out duty and in providing guards on likely landing grounds. Not until 16th May (Albuhera Day) were orders given to start work on the Escaut defences, in which the Buffs were detailed to a position in front of the village of Petegem, scarcely more than two miles from the battlefield of Oudenarde, where, 230 years before, their predecessors had taken part in the great victory gained by the Duke of Marlborough over the French under Vendôme.

IMG_3232THE ADVANCE INTO BELGIUM, MAY 1940

Alas ! there was little on this day to encourage the hope of victory, for matters were going hardly for the Allies. From Maastricht to Sedan the Germans were across the Meuse. Holland had capitulated. The Albert Canal position was doomed. Everywhere the advanced formations of Belgians, French and British were withdrawing before the enemy, who in France had effected a clean break-through before Sedan and had by now reached St. Quentin. For the French and British in Belgium the plan was now to fall back south- westwards to France, a move vital to the B.E.F. if it was not to be cut off from its bases.

The first bound by the forward elements in this retirement was to the Escaut, which by 19th May formed but a negligible obstacle to determined troops owing to the draining off 4′ the water for inundations, leaving the river no more than thirty feet wide and less than four feet deep. Across it during the 18th and 19th came large sections of the Belgian Army and British II Corps.

In the Petegem area, with nothing more than the slender barrier of the river between them and the Germans, the Buffs were dug in on the very wide frontage allotted to them of between 2,000 and 2,500 yards. On their right were the 1st/6th Queen’s, of I31 Brigade, and on their left the 4th Royal West Kent, of 132 Brigade. In their rear, in reserve, were the 1st/5th Queen’s, of 131 Brigade. Disposed on a frontage double that normally given to a battalion, it followed that wide dispersion was necessary, with the result that platoon and even section posts were in many cases out of sight of each other, a state of affairs which added greatly to the problems of mutual support, communication and control.

The chief features in the Buffs’ area were the village of Petegem, the main road running through the rear of the position to Oudenarde, the chateau in its wooded grounds on the right, and the small valley to the front of the sluggish Escaut, which turned sharply back on the right where the Buffs joined up with the Queen’s . (See map below.)

IMG_3233ACTION OF THE 2ND BATTALION AT PETEGEM, 20TH AND 21ST MAY 1940

In the centre was the hamlet of Hulweede, between Petegem and the river, which was canalized and could be reached only by way of marshy fields traversed from north to south by a muddy ditch crossed by four small brick bridges. From across the river the position was completely overlooked by high, wooded ground which rose steeply from the valley. To the rear, parallel with the Oudenarde road, ran the main Brussels railway, from which the ground rose steeply to the north and west.

On the morning of 20th May, with all ranks weary from four days and nights of incessant labour, final touches were put to the defences and all barges and boats on the Escaut were sunk or dragged to the near bank. In the early afternoon a first sight of the -enemy was obtained as he came down through the woods, carrying floats and bridging material. At s p.m. artillery fire was opened on the Buffs, and an hour later Colonel Hamilton received orders from the Brigadier to send two platoons of his reserve company (B, under Captain F. G. Crozier) to support the 1st/6th Queens, on whose front the Germans had crossed the river. The enemy in fact withdrew without these platoons becoming involved, but it was past 10 p.m. when, tired and unfed, they got back to Petegem to find that -all the forward companies of the battalion had been engaged, and that they were required at once to help restore the situation in the centre, occupied by Major Bruce’s A Company, which had been forced out of Hulweede.

All men of A Company who in the darkness could be assembled then moved off, with B Company and the Bren carriers of the Buffs and Queen’s in support, to put in a counter- attack, organized under the direction of Major Bruce. The use of artillery was vetoed by the brigadier on the grounds that there might still be British posts holding out in the hamlet. Accordingly, the attack was launched by way of a sunken road running south-westwards through the area held by C Company, under Major W. H. Rowe. The Germans were well established, however, with their automatic weapons advantageously sited, and gallantly though the assault was led it could not be maintained. Some forty casualties were suffered, amongst whom was Major Bruce, who was wounded.

At 3 a.m. on 21st May, after artillery preparation on this occasion, a further attempt was made to recapture the little village by elements of A, B and C Companies and Intelligence personnel under Captain Edlmann. But the coming of dawn sealed the fate of this effort, in which Platoon Sergeant-Major B. Rackley, whose conduct had been most gallant, was killed, and Major Bruce for the second time wounded and now captured. His outstanding courage and leadership throughout the night earned for him the Military Cross. Others noted for their bravery were Corporal A. C. Brookman of the carrier platoon and Private C. Pilcher of A Company.

By 5 a.m. enemy shelling, mortar fire and aerial bombing had become intense upon the whole position held by the Buffs, and a number of Germans worked their way into the woods surrounding the chateau in the position held by Captain P. W. Ransley and D Company. He was supported later in the morning by H.Q. Company under Captain R. F. Parry, who had previously been most conspicuous in leading patrols for the eviction of snipers who had made their way into Petegem. In the woods fighting went on for the greater part of the day, both sides suffering considerable casualties.

Mid-afternoon saw the development of infantry attacks in great strength along the entire front held by 13 r Brigade, and by 5 p.m. the Royal West Kent, on the left of C Company, had begun to withdraw. Major Rowe, in conformity with the agreed plan, withdrew his company also as far as the railway. Here it came under the orders of r 32 Brigade, with whom it was to do the most valuable work during the next two days.

For the main body of the Buffs the position had by 7.30 p.m. become highly critical. The enemy. had broken through the front of the 1st/6th Queen’s and had not only worked round the left flank of .the Buffs but had established himself on their right rear, beyond the railway line. Casualties, especially amongst officers, had been very heavy, the battalion had been continuously under fire for twenty-eight hours, and since 4.30 p.m. no communication had been received from Brigade. That this was so was due to the fact that the liaison officer, 2/Lieut. H. R. H. Marriott, had been captured on his way to the battalion with orders.

The situation being what it was, Colonel Hamilton decided to act, as it happens, precisely in accordance with the orders borne by 2/Lieut. Marriott. He resolved to fight his way out with what was left of the battalion to the high ground beyond the railway. C Company was detached, as already recounted, and A scarcely existed any longer. There remained then but B, D and H.Q. Companies, which, closely pressed by the Germans, fell back in succession. The last to withdraw was H.Q. Company, which crossed the railway about 9.30 p.m. and, becoming separated from the other two companies, which had made their way to Knock, lay up for a while in a wood.

Inevitably after such heavy’ and confused fighting as that of the previous day considerable disorganization ensued, and the morning of 22nd May found the Buffs still scattered. C Company was with 132. Brigade, parts of A, B and D under Colonel Hamilton were at Knock, whilst Captain Parry and H.Q. Company were at Vichte, where 44 Divisional H.Q. was located. To help cover the withdrawal of this, Captain Parry’s remnants, with some hundred men of the 1st/5th and 1st/6th Queens, were quickly enlisted. Mean¬while, Colonel Hamilton and Captain Edlmann, five miles further eastward, were co-operating with 13 3 (Sussex) Brigade, which was being submitted to very heavy enemy pressure. The few remaining Bren carriers of the Buffs were conspicuous throughout this morning, their drivers showing the utmost keenness and great courage in carrying out any task allotted them.

The order for the whole division to retire came at 4 p.m., and the Buffs marched fifteen miles through the night back to Courtrai with but little interference except from hedge¬hopping German aircraft, which were active until darkness set in. Crossing the River Lys in the early hours of 23rd, the now dead-weary men were able to snatch but an hour’s sleep on the hard pavements of the town before being called upon to make contact with Belgian troops on their left, and to take up a position extending some 1,200 yards along the river bank.

By midday the battalion was more or less concentrated once more, for, in addition to a number of stragglers, H.Q. Company had rejoined, as had C Company minus Major Rowe, who had been wounded. The Germans were not at this moment pressing their advantage. Apart from bombing, therefore, a somewhat uneventful day was spent. In the evening there came orders for a further withdrawal, involving a march of twelve miles to Gheluwe whence, promised transport not having arrived, the Buffs trudged another six miles until ultimately they were picked up and conveyed to Le Touquet, just east of the French border. At last there was to be a short spell of rest, and a day of comparative quiet followed by a night’s sleep worked wonders with all ranks. Advantage was taken of this respite to reorganize the sadly depleted battalion, which had lost ten officers and some two hundred men since 20th May.

Seldom does the soldier engaged in battle know of happenings other than in his own immediate vicinity, and of the general situation he is usually totally ignorant. So it was then with the Buffs, fed largely upon rumour until they came to Le Touquet when, during their short rest, the true state of affairs in all its seriousness was borne in on them. The Germans had now driven right on to the coast after their break-through at Sedan : Calais was besieged, Boulogne had been evacuated (The evacuation of Boulogne should not be passed over without mention of the many tributes paid by eye-witnesses to the gallantry during this hazardous operation of Lieut.-Colonel D. J. Dean, V.C., who at this time was commanding a group of the Pioneer Corps.) and there remained only Dunkirk through which the B.E.F. could be maintained, albeit on half rations and but the minimum of ammunition. The French First Army and the B.E.F. in Belgium were cut off. An attempt by 50 Division to force its way southwards in the neighbourhood of Arras had met with some success, but this had to be broken off due to limited French co-operation. Lord Gort was now committed to a westward retirement, and with the capitulation of the Belgians on the night of 27th/28th May his left flank was completely exposed. There seemed to be two alternatives only, surrender or evacuation. In preparation for the latter, plans were already under way to form a perimeter covering Dunkirk, from where it was hoped to embark at least a proportion. of the British force. In the meanwhile the Germans, having reached the sea, were moving not only along the coast but inland to the east in an attempt to encircle the B.E.F.

To counter this move 44 Division was given the task of holding the enemy in the Meteren area, and on 26th May the Buffs, who on the previous afternoon had moved to Pont de Nieppe, near Armentieres, marched on to the village of Doulieu, six miles due south of Meteren. A hot and weary march it was, with much enemy air activity, although the column escaped direct attack. On 27th a position was taken up west of Merris, A Company, under A/Captain T. P. Huggins, finding two platoon posts on the Strazeele-Vieux Berquin road, and B a third post, all in support of the outposts of 132 Brigade. The remainder of B Company, now under Captain H. R. Grace, occupied an area south-west of Strazeele. Captain Parry, with C and D Companies respectively under Captain B. Wills and Lieut. P. N. W. Buckwell, was detached and put under the direct orders of 131 Brigade. Colonel Hamilton, Captain Edlmann (‘Captain Edlmann had succeeded to the adjutancy after Captain R. J. Murphy had been wounded on 22nd May.) and the rest of the now hopelessly split-up battalion were in front of Merris.

Heavy rain ushered in 28th May, a day marked by much confusion, rumour, indefinite and conflicting orders and uneasy speculation as to the immediate future. For Colonel Hamilton the position was peculiarly difficult, for he had less than half the battalion directly under his command, and that committed to no specific task. The remainder was split up, as has been recorded, again with but the vaguest orders. A Company and the platoon of B finding posts on the Strazeele¬Vieux Berquin road had pushed forward to deal with the enemy in the forest of Nieppe, where Captain Huggins was killed leading his men in a bayonet charge. Captain Parry, meanwhile, with his two companies, had been given the role of brigade reserve with the task of counter-attacking on any part of 13 t Brigade line which might appear to be crumpling. In this he was to use his initiative and not to wait for orders.

Pushing well out, Captain Parry established himself at the cross-roads at Strazeele, receiving during the day the attention of more than a hundred dive-bombers. About 2.30 p.m., when certain elements of 131 Brigade fell back, Captain Parry saw his chance. Supported by two carriers of the 1st/6th Queen’s which happened to come his way, under 2/Lieut. A. J. S. Cox of that battalion, and himself mounted on an old civilian bicycle, he led his by now almost completely exhausted men along the ridge running down from Caestre. The chance of action, combined with the presence of the carriers and Captain Parry’s inspiring leadership, put heart into the men, who in next to no time covered a distance of eight hundred yards or more to some farm buildings in which a number of Germans had collected. Artillery support there was none, but opposition was quickly overcome and the farm stormed with grenade and bayonet, 2/Lieut. Cox of the Queen’s and L./Corporal A. E. Parish of C Company being particularly prominent in the assault. Prisoners captured, Panzer Grenadiers, stated that they had been without food for four days, and were as worn out as our own men.

Scarcely had the farm been taken and Captain Parry’s men withdrawn slightly to a more advantageous tactical position, than a further body of enemy arrived, which the Buffs were in process of engaging when three tanks bore down at great speed on both parties. These proved to be French, but in no trim to fight. However, their arrival on the scene seems to have damped the ardour of the Germans, and by early dark Captain Parry, who was by now completely isolated, set about making contact with Brigade H.Q., to learn that orders had been issued for withdrawal, but that his detachment had been omitted from the distribution list. The fact that this omission had also occurred in the case of Colonel Hamilton’s section of the battalion became apparent at this moment; Captain Parry therefore undertook to send a messenger immediately to Merris. The failure of this and a subsequent messenger to reach Battalion H.Q. was to have most unfortunate results, as will shortly be seen.

Before 6 a.m. on 29th Captain Parry had withdrawn his two companies to the appointed rendezvous, the Mont des Cats, where 44 Division had been ordered to stand and fight. Here Major P. Dare, the quartermaster, -appeared on the scene with B Echelon, which had been shelled out of Outersteene. He brought the alarming information that the rest of the battalion was still apparently at Merris. Some action had to be taken. Major Dare accordingly, in company with Captain Parry, informed the divisional commander, who was in conference in the near-by monastery. He considered it was too late for anything to be done. By chance, however, Platoon Sergeant-Major H. Dumont, acting as liaison officer at Brigade H.Q., was found, and knowing Colonel Hamilton’s precise location was sent off by Captain Parry to let him know the situation.

Throughout 28th Colonel Hamilton had been aware of talk of withdrawal to the north and by evening it was plain to him that some such movement was in fact in progress, but contact with Brigade H.Q. had been lost; and, as has been related, no orders had reached him. In the circumstances, whatever might be the evidence of a retirement, Colonel Hamilton had no alternative but to remain where he was with such Buffs as were still effectively under his command.

As has been made plain, C and D Companies were not under his orders, nor was A Company. There were left, then, but the three platoons of B Company under Captain Grace, south- east of Strazeele, and H.Q. Company at Battalion H.Q., just south of Merris. Now in command of H.Q. Company, incidentally, was Coy. Sergeant-Major H. Osborne, whose outstanding leadership and example had been an inspiration to all since the commencement, a week previously, of the heavy fighting in which the Buffs had been engaged. At Outersteene, near by, was B Echelon transport, under Major Dare, as the result of whose energy, initiative and bravery the battalion had lacked nothing’ which it was humanly possible to bring to it during the past hectic days. Major Dare was to be wounded on the Mont des Cats on 29th, shortly after the incidents related above.

At first light on 29th May Colonel Hamilton started to reconnoitre the area to his front but, with the exception of B Company, already heavily engaged with the enemy, he found not a sign of British troops either in the posts which they had held the previous day or in Vieux Berquin, where he was fired upon by Germans and was fortunate to escape capture. There was much firing in the vicinity of Strazeele, but elsewhere our own troops had vanished during the night. By 7 o’clock the enemy had forced B Company back to the Hazebrouck- Armentieres railway and had established themselves in Merris. The position was desperate. No message had been received to withdraw, for Platoon Sergeant-Major Dumont had been captured en route.

Accordingly, Colonel Hamilton decided to fall back in the direction of Meteren, where he felt that he might find British troops, to try to contact whom he sent off Captain Grace on the pillion of a motor cycle ridden by L./Corporal Epps. Both were captured before they reached Meteren. Meanwhile, with heavy fire directed against them from the north, south and east, the small party of Buffs, no more than three platoons in strength, fell back to Outersteene, Coy. Sergeant-Major Osborne again distinguishing himself by his cool and skilful handling of his men. The enemy had the village and road registered for his artillery, and a number of men were hit. The northward move was therefore continued across country in artillery formation until, on approaching Meteren, troops were seen. These turned out to be Germans, who opened a heavy fire upon the Buffs, causing more casualties, including Regtl. Sergeant-Major I. G. Brophy, who was wounded.

Falling slowly back to the railway again, advantage was taken of the cover afforded by the embankment to shelter in an orchard where the wounded were dressed. The next step to be taken was something of a problem, for the enemy seemed to be everywhere. It was finally decided to make a bid to reach Bailleul. Any hope of success was short-lived, however, for after about an hour the now utterly exhausted party, struggling along with their wounded, came to the main Armentieres-Bailleul road to find a long column of lorry- borne German troops less than three hundred yards away. They were, of course, immediately seen and, in the words of Captain Edlmann in the poignant description of this bitter moment contained in his diary, resistance could be ruled out as absurd. Thus then passed into captivity this hard-pressed remnant of the 2nd Battalion which for the past nine days had been so severely tried.

Meanwhile, the enemy had concentrated heavy shell fire on the Mont des Cats, and by 10 a.m. orders had been given to abandon the hill and for all troops to make their way by any route and in any order of march to Dunkirk. By the time Captain Parry had reached the position in which he had left them before his visit to the divisional commander, C and D Companies had received these orders and Captain Wills had acted upon them. Both they and Captain Parry ultimately reached Dunkirk, where they took their turn with the 335,000 British and French troops who were successfully taken off the beaches and conveyed to England. Assisting in this remarkable operation of embarking so many troops from so perilous a situation were certain officers and N.C.Os. of the Buffs sent over from the I.T.C. at Canterbury-Major G. E. F. Oliver, Captain M. G. F. Alexander and Sergeants E. Southwell and H. O’Leary-who were all employed on the beaches on embarkation duties.

IMG_3230 (1)
ADVANCE TO THE ESCAUT AND FIGHTING WITHDRAWAL TO DUNKIRK

The opinion has been expressed that the Germans showed lack of enterprise in not pressing in on the Dunkirk perimeter, which it is thought they could have done with ease and thus have put a stop to the whole scheme of embarkation. There has, however, recently come to light certain evidence to show that it was on Hitler’s express orders that the enemy held back. Be that as it may, this in no manner detracts from the skill and `courage of all concerned in this unprecedented operation, ,carried out as it was under constant artillery fire and heavy bombing.

Casualties among the rank and file of the Buffs since 20th May are difficult to assess accurately, but it seems that they were little short of four hundred killed, wounded and missing. The losses in officers are shown below.

Killed: A/Captain T. P. Huggins (on 28th May).

Died of wounds: 2/Lieut. D. C. Pearson (on 21st May).

Wounded: Major B. E. Hammond-Davies (on 21st May); Major W. H. Rowe (on 22nd May); Major and Quartermaster P. Dare (on 29th May); Captains

P. W. Ransley and F. G. Crozier (on 21st May).

Wounded and a prisoner: Major E. P. C. Bruce (on 22nd May.)

Prisoners: Lieut Colonel G F Hamilton, Captains H. R. Grace and E. L. C. Edlmann (on 29th May); Lieuts. A. T. Smith and 2/Lieuts. C. E. A. L. Williams, J. M. Morley and H. R. H. Marriott (on 21st May). (Lieut. Marriott was tragically killed on 14th April 1945, whilst still in enemy hands, when Allied aircraft mistakenly machine-gunned a marching column of officer prisoners.)

Detached from the Regiment, Major R. Keown, D A Q M G of 46 Division was killed during the period of the withdrawal to Dunkirk, and Captain M. P. D. Dewar, brigade-major of 145 Brigade in 48 Division, and 2/Lieut. A. W. Gay, with 131 Brigade A./Tk. Company, were taken prisoner.

It is gratifying to know that for their gallantry during the operations just described awards were made, amongst others, to Major Rowe, who received the D.S.O., to Major Brute, as already mentioned, and to Captains Parry and Edlmann, who won the Military Cross, and to Coy. Sergeant-Major Osborne, L./Corporals Parish and D. T. W. Reynolds and Private J. Hart, all of whom were given a well-merited Military Medal. The Distinguished Conduct Medal was also later awarded to Private F. Royston, who, after being wounded at Dunkirk and taken prisoner, escaped from Germany. Gradually making his way across occupied France, he ultimately reached Spain, where he was again imprisoned, finally arriving in Gibraltar in April 1942 after a series of adventures and a constant display of initiative, courage and pertinacity of the highest order.

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Somerset & Dorset Family History Society

The SDFHS helps people, wherever they live, to research their family history and to help add local context and connections to the basic information they may already have found. Website: www.sdfhs.org

The Perimeter

Quintin Lake's photographic Journey walking around Britain's Coast

Sevenoaks WW1

Researching and remembering the people of Sevenoaks, Kent during the First World War

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