Difference between revisions of "70th Infantry Brigade War Diary May 1940 (part one)."
|Line 348:||Line 348:|
At 18:00 hours the Brigade Commander reported to the HQ of POLFORCE that the return to [[METEREN]] had been accomplished and the Brigade reassumed its role as the POLFORCE Mobile Reserve.
At 18:00 hours the Brigade Commander reported to the HQ of POLFORCE that the return to [[METEREN]] had been accomplished and the Brigade reassumed its role as the POLFORCE Mobile Reserve.
To contact the author by e-mail with any queries, or to send information - [mailto:email@example.com click here].
To contact the author by e-mail with any queries, or to send information - [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org click here].
Latest revision as of 11:13, 3 June 2020
70th Brigade War Diary May 1940
In view of the complexity of the War Diary for this crucial month in the Brigade's existence it is recommended that the Diaries for each of the Units concerned are read alongside each other, so as to form as accurate a picture as possible of what was a confusing few weeks. The entries are kept in date order and, where clarity would be helped, the reader is referred to parallel entries from other Units. It is suggested that the Diary for the 23rd Division is read first, followed by that for the Brigade HQ and then the Infantry Battalions and Engineer Companies. There is a considerable amount of material to cover, especially as Units were in many cases broken into small parties and served as part of temporary groupings, such as Petreforce. The author has tried to be as faithful as possible to the original documents.
1st – 8th May 1940
All three Battalions continued with their work in constructing the aerodromes at NUNCQ and BEAUVOIR. The 10th and 11th Battalions took alternate shifts each day at NUNCQ and each man spent four days each week on construction, two days in training and one day of rest. 1st Tyneside Scottish worked on a similar basis at BEAUVOIR. The Officer in charge of the sites was of the view that work was proceeding so satisfactorily that completion was expected in three weeks.
9th May 1940
Information was received that the possibility of paratroop landings on the aerodromes was becoming more acute and 23rd Division therefore issued orders that a one hour “stand-to” at dawn was to be put in force. After a day or so this was modified so that a skeleton force only, sufficient to rouse the Battalions as a whole, was to stand-to.
10th May 1940
The German assault began on this day but no direct reference is made in the Brigade War Diary. However, Air-Raid Warnings were becoming more frequent and the first bombs in the vicinity of the Brigade’s Camps were at DOULLENS. As the Camps for 10th and 11th Battalions were adjacent, and therefore more of a target, the Brigadier and O.C. 10th DLI carried out a reconnaissance for a new site in a neighbouring village. Arrangements were made for the Battalion to move in the next few days.
12th May 1940
Orders were issued at 20:00 hours for 10th DLI to stand by for a move of location.
13th May 1940
At 01:00 a Conference was held at the 10th Battalion HQ at NUNCQ attended by the G.S.O.I and A.A.Q.M.G. from 23rd Division, the Brigadier and the Brigade Major, arising from which orders were issued for 10th DLI to move to the ABBEVILLE area to guard aerodromes against paratroop attacks. In order to carry out this move the 10th Battalion was given the use of the transport from both 11th DLI and 9th RNF.
14th May 1940
The move of the 10th Battalion was completed by 06:00 and the Companies were allotted the following positions:-
The defence of AUTHIE Aerodrome was taken over by a Platoon of 1st Tyneside Scottish.
Brigade then made contact with the O.C. of the Chemical Warfare Company at HAUTECLOQUE. Night patrols were established and strict measures taken in case enemy paratroop landings were attempted.
15th May 1940
Orders were received for 11th DLI to stand to and guard NUNCQ Aerodrome against possible enemy paratroop attack, or troop-carrying aircraft landings. Information had been received that the danger of such attacks was imminent. The Battalion took up defensive positions where it remained all night, but in the event all was quiet.
16th May 1940
Orders were again given to 11th DLI to expect imminent airborne attacks and defensive positions were again manned for the night, though in the event the situation remained quiet.
The HQ of 10th DLI moved to LA BROYE.
17th May 1940
At 09:30 hours the Brigade Commander went to the HQ of 23rd Division at MIRAUMONT and was given a Warning Order to prepare to move the Brigade. At that time the Brigade was dispersed as follows:-
Brigadier Kirkup ordered that the Brigade should take up the Forward Defence Line on the CANAL DU NORD extending from RUYAULCOURT (excl) to the CAMBRAI-ARRAS Road (excl). 69th Brigade would be on the left.
The Brigade front was allotted as follows:-
1st Tyneside Scottish (HQ at VELU) – from RUYAULCOURT (incl) to CAMBRAI-BAPAUME Road (excl) – a distance of approximately five miles. This move was completed and troops were in position by 19:00 hours.
11th Durham Light Infantry (HQ at PRONVILLE) – from CAMBRAI – BAPAUME Road (incl) to CAMBRAI – ARRAS Road (excl) – a distance of 4 ¼ miles. This move was completed and the troops in position by 20:00 hours.
10th Durham Light Infantry (HQ at LAGNICOURT) – to remain in Brigade Reserve. Their move was completed and the Battalion in position by 06:00 hours on 18th May.
Brigadier Kirkup then fixed a rendezvous with the Commanders of 11th DLI and 1st Tyneside Scottish for 17:00 hours at DEMICOURT. This rendezvous was kept by the O.C. 1st Tyneside Scottish and he and the Brigadier fixed the positions for his Battalion. The O.C. of 11th DLI was prevented from reaching the venue by traffic density (almost certainly due to the volume of refugee movements) and the Brigadier therefore went to meet him at PRONVILLE to decide his dispositions.
Both DEMICOURT and the CANAL DU NORD were bombed and machine-gunned during the course of the afternoon.
18th May 1940
At 09:00 hours Brigadier Kirkup carried out a personal detailed reconnaissance of the line of the 11th DLI and also contacted the O.C.s of the other two Battalions as well as making contact with the O.C. of 6th Green Howards of 69th Brigade, on his left.
The reconnaissance showed that there were seven or eight bridges over the canal which was the key part of the Brigade front which were not shown on the maps being used. In addition some portions of the canal were dry though some parts did offer the possibility of tank obstacles. The canal entered a tunnel South of RUYAULCOURT and at this point the ground was observed to be open, rolling countryside – seen as ideal for the movement of armoured fighting vehicles.
During the day several periods of intense enemy air activity were experienced across the Brigade’s Forward Defence Lines. The area held by 11th DLI was both bombed and machine-gunned from the air and the Battalion suffered casualties both killed and wounded.
(I believe it is possible that the incident which my father related to our younger son during which one of his comrades was killed at his side by a direct hit from a mortar round took place during these attacks).
The area of the Brigade’s Reserve Positions was also bombed.
(The following section of the War Diary for 18th May 1940 is considered so important in the understanding of what happened to the Brigade during this key period that it is reproduced verbatim. It is this vital aspect of the Brigade’s dispositions that has been noted, it is believed for the first time in the many histories of the campaign, in the recent books on Dunkirk by General Julian Thompson and Mr Hugh Sebag-Montefiore.)
“It had been anticipated that certain French Territorial Troops would be holding the Bridge Heads over the canal but none could be found. It was further expected that French Troops would be on the right flank of the Brigade where the canal was tunnelled but no contact could be gained though reconnaissance parties were repeatedly sent out during the night and day. So far as the immediate front was concerned, information was given to the effect that the Brigade was holding a second or third line of defence and that French troops were in front. During the period the Brigade held the line of the canal no contact could, however, be established with troops in front.”
During the day the Brigade consolidated its position and bridges were prepared for demolition by 23rd Division Royal Engineers. Anti-Tank Guns (understood to be French) were received and allocated on the basis of three per forward Battalion. Ammunition for these guns was drawn from CHERISY and issued. Unfortunately, one of the guns had a bent barrel and one a buckled wheel (neither had the troops had any opportunity of being briefed or trained on these weapons, which were unfamiliar).
At 23:30 hours orders were received to swing back the line of the Forward Defence Lines. This was contained in a telephone message from the G.S.O. I of 23rd Division to Brigade HQ. The Brigade HQ also was moved from RIENCOURT to CHERISY, which had been the Advanced HQ of 23rd Division – leading to a subsequent alteration in the lines of the Forward Defence Lines.
19th May 1940
At 01:00 hours it was clarified that the Brigade’s objective was to reinforce the right flank of the B.E.F. on the line of the railway BOYELLES (incl) to MARQUION (excl) – a distance of some 16 miles.
The Brigade was therefore disposed as follows:-
HQ at CHERISY. 10th DLI – HQ at CROISELLES N5389 – BOYELLES (incl) N5189 to BULLECOURT (incl) N5787. 11th DLI – HQ at RIENCOURT – BULLECOURT (excl) N5787 to MARQUION (excl) 6789. 1st TS – HQ at HENDECOURT N5901 – in reserve at 5890.
The resultant movements were all carried out by march route with all troops in position by 08:00.
At 02:30 hours a composite Artillery unit reported to Brigade HQ under the command of Captain Milner, Royal Artillery. This consisted of two 4.5” Howitzers and two 18 pdr Field Guns, which had been supplied by a Base School of Artillery. Captain Milner reported that the Field Guns had no lubricating oil and that he had doubts about their compression. In his opinion only one round would be able to be fired from each gun and it would then be rendered useless.
The 4.5” Howitzers were ordered to be positioned to cover the left flank of the Brigade in the neighbourhood of BUISSEY. As none of the guns had sights it would be necessary for them to be close to the Forward Defence Lines (and presumably used at close, point-blank range). The 18pdrs were held in reserve pending their being fitted for action.
At 11:00 hours Major Trenam D.A.Q.M.G. of 23rd Division reported to Brigade HQ with instructions that the Brigade was to concentrate at THELUS.
The objective was then to embus to take up positions on the LA BASSEE – BETHUNE canal.
At 14:00 hours a Conference of Commanding Officers was held at Brigade HQ, CHERISY. All sub-units in the area, including Artillery, were placed under the command of 70th Brigade.
(In an Appendix to the War Diary the following page appears:-
“Captain Milner made a note of the Conference held on 19th May at CHERISY at 14:00 hours as follows:- Withdrawal today behind the LA BASSEE Canal facing South. 7th Green Howards will be responsible for protecting the assembly area at THELUS H4097. 69th Brigade (to cover) LA BASSEE inclusive to BETHUNE exclusive. 70th Brigade (to cover) BETHUNE inclusive to ROBECQ exclusive. All sub-units in the area, Gunners etc, to come under command 70th Brigade. R.V. with Brigade units at THELUS 21:00 hours. C.Os Adjts C.C.s and 2 O.R.s per Coy. No move before 17:30 hours then dribbled, not more than 100 per Battalion single file both sides of the road, 10 yards between men. No other withdrawal before 20:30 hours either by M.T. or foot. Unit transport may go through to THELUS and return to pick up men. No transport to move before 20:30 hours.”
“The Force reported at CHERISY under Captain Milner at 02:30 hours sent to RIENCOURT to contact Lt Col Bramwell (of 11th DLI).
2 4.5 Howitzers (without sights, no S/Clinometres)
2 18 pdrs (without sights, no S/Clinometres)
5 Civil lorries
3 8 cwts
1 30 cwt
1 Bren Gun
800 rounds S.A.A. plus 2 cases.
4 detachments of ten 40
3 Despatch riders 3
5 Signallers 5
22 Drivers 22
2 Bren Gunners 2
5 Batmen 5
8 Officers 8
18 pdr HE 156
18 pdr SH 156
4.5 HE 80
Ammo (rounds) 382 “)
The War Diary itself records – in the body of the document:-
The instructions given at the Conference were that the rendezvous would be at THELUS at 21:00 hours, including Commanding Officers and Adjutants of the three Battalions, the Company Commanders and two men per Company. No move would take place before 17:30 hours and then men would be “dribbled” on their way – no more than 100 men per Battalion in the first instance, marching in single file using both sides of the road, with ten yards between men. All movement would cease if enemy aircraft approached. Unit transport would be allowed to travel to THELUS to deposit their loads and then return to start collecting men.
No further withdrawal would be undertaken before 20:30 hours, either on foot or by transport, at which time the main move would begin. (As will be seen, this set of entries matches the information noted by Captain Milner).
This move involved a road march of 23 miles for 1st TS, 24 miles for 10th DLI and 20 miles for 11th DLI. At this time the Brigade front extended for eight miles.
During the 19th May the Brigade’s positions, including Brigade HQ, were subject to intermittent air attack by both bombs and machine-guns. Casualties were sustained on the Forward Defence Lines.
Just prior to the withdrawal of 11th DLI at 20:00 hours enemy armoured fighting vehicles were seen approaching from CAMBRAI, although Brigade HQ did not become aware of this report until almost twelve hours later. (This is yet another illustration of the problems caused by having no Signals infrastructure serving with the Brigade, other than Despatch Riders, and there being no wireless communication – which meant that reports of this kind were not passed to higher formations as promptly as they should have been).
At 18:45 hours a Divisional Order No 034 was received which stated….”Situation improved. Division move to embussing area only. Brigadiers to report to Division forthwith. On no account will anti-tank weapons be left behind”. (This last phrase is crucial in the argument over the use of the Brigade’s transport in the ensuing day or so and will be referred to again).
At 20:00 hours, in accordance with the Divisional Order the Brigadier reported to Divisional HQ at MONCHY-LE-PREUX and was instructed to take up a defensive flank West of ARRAS to organise defended villages in the area.
The new dispositions were therefore determined as follows:-
69th Brigade had been similarly instructed to occupy positions to the South and East flank of ARRAS.
At 21:00 hours the Brigadier met his C.O.s at MONCHY-LE-PREUX and issued his orders.
As the Brigade move originally ordered towards THELUS was, by this time, underway, the Brigade Major and the Staff Captain were despatched to divert the transport and marching columns to the route WANCOURT-NEUVILLE-MERCATEL-FICHEUX-RIVIERE. To relieve the men, who were in the process of carrying out the lengthy marches which had been ordered, staging points were fixed so that the men could be met and ferried forward, disembarked, and the transport could then return to pick up the next loads in a form of “shuttle” arrangement.
(The key argument over the Brigadier’s decision to deliver the loads contained within the transport available before beginning the “shuttling” of the marching troops, and which has been the source of much criticism of Brigadier Kirkup – not least in the Tyneside Scottish War Diary material (picked up by historians subsequently) fails to acknowledge that the material being carried on the trucks was anti-tank rifles and ammunition. As will be seen above, the Brigadier was under the strictest of instructions that this weaponry must not be abandoned – in the face of impending attack by German armour, this seems eminently sensible. The criticism also fails to realise that the Brigadier himself proposed the “shuttle” arrangement and ordered it into effect. This decision and discussion was witnessed by his driver – Pte R.B. Dixon – who described it to me in conversation many times).
The meeting points were fixed at NEUVILLE for 1st TS, MERCATEL for 10th DLI and WANCOURT for the 11th DLI. (These arrangements were made in the context of the Divisional Order which had stated that the situation was “improved” and this should be borne in mind when considering subsequent events).
The C.O.s rejoined their units to carry out the orders given.
The night was moonlight and bright.
Throughout the night the Brigadier and the Brigade Major contacted units of the Brigade at various points on the revised route – including GUEMAPPE, WANCOURT, NEUVILLE and MERCATEL. Apart from some slight enemy aerial activity all was quiet. Lt-Col Swinburne of 1st TS was met on the road between WANCOURT and NEUVILLE, travelling towards NEUVILLE at about 23:30 hours.
20th May 1940
Brigade HQ was established at GOUAY en ARTOIS at 04:00 hours. The Brigade Transport Officer returned to WANCOURT with the intention of recovering a load from a lorry which had caught fire, and to collect the guard who had been left to look after the lorry and its load (again, the load would have almost certainly been anti-tank weapons and ammunition). The party returned to GOUAY by 07:00 hours and reported having seen Lt-Col Bramwell, the Officer Commanding 11th DLI, and Major Gee, his 2 i/c, at WANCOURT at 05:45 hours, together with “D” Company and part of “C” Company of that Battalion.
At 09:00 hours Captain Brown, the Medical Officer of 11th DLI reported to Brigade HQ that Captain Shipley was in command of “A” and “B” Companies of 11th DLI located at BEAUMETZ, out of touch with WANCOURT, having no access to either Despatch Riders or Motor Transport. French gendarmes had reported to them seeing enemy armoured fighting vehicles in RIVIERE and they knew that Captain Shipley had no anti-tank weapons – these being en route from WANCOURT at the time.
Orders were issued to Captain Shipley to take up defensive positions at BEAUMETZ and a Despatch Rider was also sent to 1st TS to report the situation, but no reply was received. (It is not stated whether or not the Despatch Rider reached 1st TS, or if he returned).
At 10:30 hours 2/Lt J.K. Dunn of 1st TS arrived at Brigade HQ to report that 1st TS had been ambushed en route to FICHEUX and that armoured fighting vehicles were approaching GOUAY from the ARRAS – DOULLENS road.
2/Lt Steele, who was attached to Brigade HQ, manned a post on the BAVINCOURT to GOUAY road with an anti-tank rifle and a detachment of Brigade HQ staff.
At 10:45 hours Captain Winter of 11th DLI, and Captain Brown of the RAMC, attached to that Battalion, reported from BEAUMETZ that armoured fighting vehicles were entering that village and also working round the flanks. Captain Shipley had occupied defensive positions, as he had been ordered, and was engaging the enemy wherever possible.
It was now clear that the orders to the Brigade to defend the right flank of ARRAS on the line originally selected would not be able to be carried out as the Germans had already arrived at the locations intended to be defended.
In the light of developments the Brigadier decided to order a rendezvous at BERLES H3107 and this was ordered at 11:30 hours via Despatch Riders.
The motorcyclist sent to 1st TS returned and reported having seen that Battalion’s Lt QM Shortman at SAULTY and delivered the message.
The soldier sent to contact 10th DLI did not return and was eventually reported missing. It later became clear that he had not been able to contact the O.C. of 10th DLI but Captain Hedley of 23rd Division had, in the meantime, been able to contact Lt-Col Marley and had passed on very similar instructions.
The orders to 11th DLI were passed via Captains Brown and Winter.
At 12:00 hours Brigade HQ left GOUAY and proceeded to BERLES. En route the party met 2/Lt Edler of 622 Constructional Company, Royal Engineers with fifteen men and they were ordered to join up with the Brigade HQ party. Throughout the whole of the morning there had been considerable hostile air activity both in reconnaissance and occasional bombing – no mention is made of casualties during this move. Refugees with horse transport were impeding all the roads.
At 14:00 hours a Control Post was established at BERLES to meet units as they approached and direct them to the woods near VILLERS BRULIN where the Brigade HQ was established.
At 15:00 hours Captain Hedley of 23rd Division arrived at Brigade HQ at VILLERS BRULIN with orders that 70th Brigade was to withdraw and occupy the line of the railway SAVY 3507 – AGNIERE 3507 – ACQ 3806. He further stated that he had been in GOUAY at 14:00 hours (presumably unaware that Brigade HQ had moved two hours earlier) and had seen enemy armoured fighting vehicles. He also confirmed that he had seen Lt-Col Marley of 10th DLI at WANQUETIN 3699 and passed on the message from the Divisional Commander that he had just given to the Brigade Commander.
At 15:45 hours the Brigadier left, together with Captain Hedley, to report to Divisional HQ at MONT ST ELOI which, after significant refugee-related traffic delays en route, they reached at 16:45 hours. He presented an up to date situation report to the Divisional Commander (again, the lack of wireless communication to pass this type of crucial information must be noted) who ordered the Brigade to concentrate in the woods at SOUCHEZ H4210, with transport to be provided by the Royal Engineers, and to report at MINGOVAL.
While the Brigadier was at Divisional HQ the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 11th DLI arrived there and stated that the HQ Company of that Battalion were intact, and occupying a position on the line of the River Scarpe alongside troops of 69th Brigade. This Company had not been able to be contacted, once they were on the march, to have their route to THELUS diverted and therefore they had proceeded as originally ordered towards that destination until intercepted by 69th Brigade.
Before leaving Divisional HQ the Brigadier ordered Brigade HQ to be moved to MINGOVAL H3310 and commandeered civilian transport and organised a “ferry service” with the Brigade Motor Transport Officer directing operations to collect any stragglers South of BERLES.
At 17:00 hours 2/Lt Dunn and his detachment from 1st TS arrived at BERLES, together with Captain Winter and his detachment from 11th DLI.
At 19:00 hours 2/Lt Brewis of the 11th DLI reported to the Brigade Intelligence Officer that the ferry transport had been stopped at a point on the BERLES-TILLOY H3205 road some 2 ½ miles South of BERLES by the Commander of some British armoured fighting vehicles who stated that they were engaging the enemy in the area towards which the transport was headed. As a result the transport was ordered back to VILLERS-BRULIN.
At 20:00 hours Brigade HQ – together with the detachments of the various units which had collected – proceeded using commandeered transport towards MINGOVAL via FREVILLERS as it had proved impossible, due to the congestion caused by refugee traffic, to travel via SAVY and AGNIERE as originally intended. They were met en route by the Brigadier as he returned from Divisional HQ.
At 20:30 a Major of 12th Lancers – who commanded six British armoured fighting vehicles (probably armoured cars) at FREVILLERS and occupying a defensive line South of that village reported that there were enemy armoured fighting vehicles on the AGNIERES-MINGOVAL-GAUCOURT road. As these vehicles were clearly visible with field glasses from FREVILLERS and had been identified by the Major as enemy it was decided that any move of Brigade HQ and the attached unit detachments due east to the woods at SOUCHEZ would be impossible. (The list of transport used makes clear that none of the commandeered or available unit transport was armoured and therefore would have been a very “soft” target for enemy tanks or armoured cars).
The Brigadier therefore decided to move the rendezvous to HOUDAIN and the Motor Transport Officer organised a contact post there.
(It was at around this time that an incident occurred which was illustrative of the character of Brigadier Kirkup. A platoon of the DLI (uncertain whether 10th or 11th Battalions) was holding a village in the face of a German attack and were ordered to withdraw. A troop of three armoured cars from 12th Lancers drove in to assist in evacuating the men who, by now, were under fire from German tanks. The platoon clambered on board the three cars and they started their withdrawal from the village. First one car was hit by a tank round, disabling the vehicle, and then a second. In both cases the crew of the armoured car, and the infantrymen hanging on to the outside, escaped injury and transferred to the next vehicle – as a result the third car was transporting around thirty infantrymen and their fellow crewmen as fast as possible out of the village.
The Brigadier was in his staff car at the exit from the village and, despite the oncoming German armour, told the driver to hold position until the platoon had made a successful escape.
As the third armoured car roared past them, festooned with the members of the platoon, he said ….”Right – we can go now!”
The driver accelerated out of the village, following the armoured car and seeing, in his rear view mirror, the gun flashes from the German tanks at the other end of the short village street. At this point, the Brigadier’s batman – “Monty” – unclipped his Bren Gun from its position across the rear door, smashed the rear window with the butt of the gun, and opened up on the German vehicles, with the Brigadier kneeling beside him handling the spare magazines.
As the car sped away from the village a stretch of road was encountered which had been sown with concrete blocks to make an anti-tank obstacle. The car skidded round them at some speed until, when emerging, it came head on against a Belgian Army motor-cycle and side-car with a total of five Belgian soldiers aboard. The driver claimed he had no choice but to hit this combination, and his abiding memory was of bodies flying in all directions as he carried on down the road. He could only assume that he had killed, or at least seriously injured, the Belgians, who apparently were making their way home, their Army having collapsed).
The manpower in the party and the units involved were as follows at this time:-
Brigade HQ 5 Officers 36 Other Ranks
1st TS 1 “ 22 “
10th DLI 4 “ 46 “
11th DLI 3 “ 57 “
507th Field Coy RE - “ 52 “
622nd Constr Coy RE 1 “ 16 “
Total 14 “ 219 “
While sufficient transport had now been acquired to move this force it was heavily overcrowded. No British troops could be traced in the area of HOUDAIN – DIVION. The roads were still crammed with refugee transport, both horse-drawn and motor. A halt was made at DIVION to assemble the transport column.
At 20:30 hours a reconnaissance was made towards LILLERS where a British Corps HQ was believed to be located. This was found and proved to be the II Corps Reception Camp. Both the Area Commander and the Officer in command of the Reception Camp were present and they stated that all II Corps troops were moving immediately to the FORET de NIEPPE and MERVILLE.
It was discovered that the GHQ of the B.E.F. was at HAZEBROUCK and attempts were made to contact them by telephone (the standard method of communication within the French Command). These were unsuccessful and the Brigade Commander was unable to get information or directions. He therefore decided to move the composite party to HAVERSKERQUE with the objective of allowing the exhausted men to rest and to contact GHQ or Corps and arrange to rejoin 23rd Division.
21st May 1940
The column reached HAVERSKERQUE at 04:00.
At 08:00 the Brigade Commander reported to GHQ in person at HAZEBROUCK and was instructed to report again later. The situation with regards to the dispositions of the enemy during the evening of 20th May North-West of ARRAS was reported to GHQ and was confirmed by the reports from 12th Lancers, which had already been received at this stage. (This may have been some small consolation, given the disbelief which had been expressed when reports of enemy armour sightings had previously been forwarded).
Brigadier Kirkup returned to GHQ at HAZEBROUCK at 11:00 hours but was unable to obtain any information about the location of 23rd Division. He was ordered to take 70th Brigade to join up with the HQ of 46th Division (one of the other two “Labour Divisions”) located at SAILLY. After spending several hours on severely crowded roads, under bombing and machine-gun fire from the air, the Brigadier reached SAILLY, contacted 46th Division’s HQ and found that Lt-Col Thomas, Officer Commanding 9th RNF – one of the 23rd Divisional Battalions – was also reporting.
Major-General Curtis, commanding 46th Division, and now in command of POLFORCE, ordered 70th Brigade to move to METEREN and form a mobile reserve to POLFORCE.
Meanwhile, at 15:30 hours 2/Lt Westray and six men of 11th DLI reported to HAVERSKERQUE. By this time the 70th Brigade Composite Force contained some 250 other ranks.
At 21:30 hours the Brigade party moved towards METEREN.
22nd May 1940
At 00:30 hours the Brigade party arrived at METEREN, (having taken three hours to travel the fifteen miles between these locations – an indication of the problems on the Region’s roads, largely due to refugees and enemy air activity).
While Brigadier Kirkup was visiting Major-General Curtis at POLFORCE he was appointed Commander of the POLFORCE Reserve Sector extending along the line of the canal from HAZEBROUCK – MERVILLE – ESTAIRES to ARMENTIERES. 9th RNF – 23rd Divisional troops - were placed under the command of 70th Brigade and Brigadier Kirkup immediately contacted them and commenced a reconnaissance of the canal.
At 21:00 hours that evening orders were received from POLFORCE to carry out a reconnaissance of the canal within the Reserve Sector, with the aims of ascertaining the state of the bridges over the canal and the preparations which had been made for demolition – including the number of barges which would need to be drawn to one side of the canal. 2/Lts Westray and Dunn carried out this reconnaissance on motorcycles as the press of refugee traffic made it impossible by car in the time available.
23rd May 1940
At 01:00 the two Second Lieutenants handed in the reports of their reconnaissance and these were forwarded to POLFORCE.
At 03:15 Captain Hedley – GSO III of 23rd Division – accompanied by Captain Izod arrived at Brigade HQ at METEREN carrying instructions from 23rd Division for 70th Brigade to proceed forthwith to WATTEN with the objective of taking up a defensive position on the canal GRAVELINES – ST OMER – de L’AA.
An Appendix to the War Diary records:-
“The text of these instructions, as recorded in Lt Col Hare’s (GSO I of 23rd Division) handwriting to Captain Izod was as follows:-
Division is moving tonight by M.T. to establish line of road blocks and demolitions on line GRAVELINES – ST OMER. 69th Inf. Bde, on right, 70th Inf. Bde. with 9th RNF under command on left. Column carrying 5 E.Y. Gear spare lorries for 9th RNF and Brigadier KIRKUP’s party. Column leaves here 23:00 hours and should reach about 01:30 hours. 9th RNF will be ready to embus at that hour at road junction H4338 O.C. 9th RNF will send guide on M/C to meet column at road junction west end of ESTAIRES. After picking up 9th RNF column will proceed to HAVERSKERQUE, where it will pick up Brigadier KIRKUP and 200 men of DLI. It will then continue to destination (WATTEN) dropping 9th RNF at ST MOMELIN and other men with their bus.
For Brigadier KIRKUP – Lt-Col Marley (10th DLI) has full instructions regarding occupation of position.”
The Brigadier was required to report immediately to the Divisional HQ at BOLEZELE for final instructions. (It is not immediately clear whether at this point 23rd Division was aware of the orders Brigadier Kirkup had been given by POLFORCE Commander, or the positions which the Brigade party and 9th RNF were in the process of taking up. It will be appreciated that this was the first contact Brigadier Kirkup had had with 23rd Division for several days).
The Brigade Major remained with the column to arrange its formation and rendezvous at LEDERZELE.
The Brigade column departed from METEREN at 04:45 hours on the route GODEWAERSVELDE – CASSEL. At 07:45 the column arrived at the rendezvous point of LEDERZELE to be met by the Brigade Commander who, on arrival at Divisional HQ at BOLLEZEELE had been instructed to send the column back to METEREN to act as a Mobile Reserve to POLFORCE (That is - to resume the orders he had been given earlier by Major-General Curtis – one can only imagine his frustration and the reaction of his men, having to spend several more fruitless hours in overcrowded transport on overcrowded roads, travelling a total of about 44 unnecessary miles. I do not recall my father making any direct mention of this farce).
The War Diary makes an interesting observation in that, within a few hours of the troops departing for LEDERZELE, their billets in the METEREN area were attacked accurately from the air – one holding some eighty men being actually hit. The billets were well dispersed around the village and the accuracy of the bombing and machine-gunning was therefore seen as surprising, giving rise to the acute suspicion of fifth-column activity in the area.
At 18:00 hours the Brigade Commander reported to the HQ of POLFORCE that the return to METEREN had been accomplished and the Brigade reassumed its role as the POLFORCE Mobile Reserve.
An article by Features Writer Chris Lloyd appeared in the Northern Echo in commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of the events at Ficheux and it can be read here. Chris's kind comments about the Website are much appreciated.
To contact the author by e-mail with any queries, or to send information - click here.