70 INFANTRY BRIGADE IN WORLD WAR 2
The aim of the work is, most importantly, to create a lasting Memorial to those men who served, and died, in this Brigade during the five years of its existence, between September 1939, and Autumn 1944.
The underlying and associated aims of writing this brief history were to address several questions and viewpoints I had developed over the years.
Firstly, by taking on board, and examining, the information, stories and anecdotes recounted by my late father over many years. Would I have been so interested in the other aspects of the Brigade’s war, had he not been personally involved? Were those stories the trigger for starting on this task – one which I was advised, many times, would be impossible? The reader will need to judge. The honest answer is that I don’t know – perhaps I would have been led to a consideration of these subsequent points as a result of my interest in military history – and exposure to the DLI Regimental Museum on a regular basis – but I cannot be certain of that.
I was sure that my father’s recollections needed to be taken into account, but in the context of the larger picture. His memories, and the anecdotes from other soldiers, formed key elements of the work. His experiences were not intended to be dominant, though, in my view, his stories have an extra dimension, and, to some small extent, an extra weight, because of his role as personal driver to the Brigade Commander for three years.
Did he appreciate more of what was happening due to his job within Brigade Headquarters? I am not sure that he did, with some exceptions, to which I refer at the appropriate time. I tried to clarify where he was at various key times, largely by using the War Diary references as to where the Brigadier was, and I make only a brief mention of the rest of his war following his transfer, after his medical downgrading resulting from wounds sustained on the Dunkirk beaches, to the Permanent Staff of the Regimental Depot and No 4 Infantry Training Centre at Brancepeth.
I applied for a copy of his military service records to verify dates and posting locations, particularly as several of the War Diaries were initially unable to be located when my more detailed researches finally got underway. As so many family historians have found, Army Service Records can be disappointing documents, though I was pleasantly surprised to find my birth recorded officially in his AB64 Paybook.
Secondly, from a local geographic perspective.
The men of 70th Brigade were all Durham and Tyneside men, at least initially, and I wished to make a connection between the history of volunteering for service in this part of the world, and the use to which those volunteers were put, once they were under arms. I also wanted to provide some hard information on the extent to which County Regiments – or at least this particular one – were diluted of their local connections by more generalised posting arrangements - and conversely, the impact of decisions to allocate reinforcements or replacements to Regiments with a clear local link. The slightly unusual circumstance of one of the Brigade’s three Battalions (12th (Tyneside Scottish) Durham Light Infantry) being transferred from the DLI to The Black Watch and re-designated as 1st Tyneside Scottish in Autumn 1939 – effective from 1st February 1940 as regards the transfer of personnel - following a vigorous and effective local lobbying process, made a very significant change to the manning structure and geographical allegiances. That this Battalion came under the The Black Watch, rather than the Durham Light Infantry, from 1st February 1940, was of particular interest, with all that was implied by way of an increase of Scots recruits, though the number of local men who continued to serve in that Battalion, and were eventually posted to other Scottish Battalions, was significant.
During the research period I successfully linked details of some of the casualties from the three Battalions, helpfully identified by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to their commemoration on local War Memorials. The parallel involvement of both my wife and myself in the North East War Memorials Project (see the Project’s Website at www.newmp.org.uk for access to this major community archive) was, of course, of material help in this part of the exercise. The agreement of the Project Team to act as the sponsoring body for the work was of inestimable value, and ensured that the results had a “home” on the Internet, rather than languishing as an unpublished book.
Thirdly, from the Regimental point of view.
Following the point made above, I was curious as to whether, given the scale of transfers in to the Brigade of men from other Regiments and other parts of the country, the extent to which the positive aspects of Regimental esprit de corps came into play in the morale of the Brigade. Given the well-known Durham reputation for friendliness, how did this manifest itself, such as in relationships with the US Marines in Iceland, for example? Here was a point where my late father’s anecdotes were particularly valuable.
Why does the Regimental Museum and the Durham County Record Office hold so little on these Battalions and their role in the Second World War?
Why do displays intended to inform local people of the activities of the Regiment in 1939-1945 omit mention of this Brigade?
My choice to set the work at Brigade level was largely because that was my late father’s frame of reference, but also because a Brigade is big enough to be statistically significant in drawing conclusions, given a strength of about 3,000, without being too large as to be impersonal.
Fourthly, from a social history perspective.
Starting from the recognition that this was a second-line Brigade at its inception, how were these units perceived in the military “pecking order”? Was the Brigade used as Lines of Communication troops - part of the Labour Element in the B.E.F. - in 1940 because of a perception at the War Office of an innate unsuitability for more intelligent operations? Was this perhaps a hangover from the common perception, during the First World War, that all Durham men must automatically be miners? Was the Brigade’s subsequent reputation for building high quality defence works in any way significant in challenging or reinforcing this image?
I found the Field Security reports held within the War Diaries – documents regarded until relatively recently as Secret – particularly valuable, as they were produced by independent NCOs and Officers for the use of higher command and pulled no punches where problems were encountered. Indeed, some of the terminology and objectives of those assessments were reminiscent of Police Special Branch documents or secure vetting tasks. At what point does traditional Army grumbling and grousing become reclassified as subversive activity?
I noted the comments made in D’Este’s work on the manpower shortages and the disbanding of Divisions and Brigades in 1944 and 1945. What were the criteria determining the choice of units to disband, which led to the eventual demise of 70th Brigade in Autumn 1944? Was it simply that 70th Brigade was then the junior Brigade in the 49th Division, as was stated in one source, or was there some underlying view that they were second-rate as well as second-line? Reference has been found to the keen disappointment felt by all ranks when their original role as part of a D-Day Assault Division was demoted to that of a follow-up unit.
This “second-division” status did not prevent, of course, the Brigade giving a serious account of itself over weeks of intense combat in Normandy, and thereby suffering a significant level of casualties.
The Brigade’s baptism of fire in the Spring of 1940 took place in a very different situation, and on a very much less level playing field as regards training, equipment and resources, but the damage they inflicted – despite massive losses – has been recognised, especially in German accounts of the period.
Fifthly, from an accountant’s perspective.
As a retired Public Finance Accountant of forty years’ standing and a former member of the Royal Army Pay Corps (Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve) I wanted to know if it was possible, using original pay and administrative records, to create a database of those who joined the Brigade, with details of what happened to them. I wanted to find out if sufficient information was accessible to answer the questions about whether the units remained local in nature or were diluted. I wanted to ascertain whether it was feasible to form a picture of the rate of movement and promotion, as well as the scale and nature of casualties, at a Brigade level.
These were the questions which were in my mind when I started – and which were supplemented by other queries as I began to form a picture of Brigade activity, and to talk to the few surviving veterans about their experiences. As time passed it became evident that several of the initial questions were not going to be able to be answered satisfactorily, due to the lack of relevant information. This lack, however, did not stop me trying to meet those aims.
The basic reasons for writing the history of 70th Brigade in the Second World War.
Why bother at all?
Firstly, such a history had not been written in any depth of detail, other than in Kevin Baverstock’s notable book “Breaking the Panzers” describing the Rauray operations in June and July 1944, a remarkably detailed and graphic piece of work also triggered, I suspect, by a key family link to the units concerned.
Secondly, existing Regimental Histories, with the exception of Whitehead’s “Harder than Hammers”, tend to concentrate on the first-line Battalions. I thought it important to recognise the contribution of the second-line Battalions and also to reflect on the lengthy periods during which units were not in action, or even at the front line, and see if this threw up any matters of social or military interest. The recognised histories make only brief reference to posting locations and training activities between early 1942 and the Brigade’s landing in Normandy in June 1944 as part of a follow-up Division. That period of two and a half years was half the Brigade’s existence and deserves at least some description, particularly as the way in which the Brigade was intended to be used changed quite significantly over that period. There are echoes of the classic film “The Way Ahead” in some of the changes imposed on the Brigade.
Other accounts, for example of the Dunkirk period, present a negative picture of the Brigade in some respects, especially with regard to some of the command decisions made at the time. While I hold no brief to defend reputations, my added knowledge as a result of my father’s first-hand descriptions of those few days and weeks, casts an additional, perhaps more illuminating, light on the situation than other historians have felt able to provide. Notable authors have acknowledged, in personal communications, that the work that has been done challenges, in key respects, their analyses of some key decisions.
Thirdly, to put family experience onto the broader stage of world events, and, in some respects, to check whether my father’s “war stories” could be verified independently. While I had no reason to suspect that he may have exaggerated his experiences I had become aware, as I mention above, of the differing perspectives taken by historians, and was looking for at least some confirmation of the events he described.
Fourthly, just to see if I could do it, in a professional and unbiased way.
Fifthly, to add, modestly, to the corpus of military writing and to try to see that the Brigade gets honest credit, locally and nationally, for what it actually achieved. The level of casualties sustained by the Brigade in 1940, and then again in 1944, demands that recognition – such a scale of sacrifice deserves no less – and justifies my approach in setting out to develop the work as a Memorial.