Narrative of 1st Tyneside Scottish Black Watch 17 - 20 May 1940

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17 – 20 May 1940

The text set out below was found in a separate document – with the heading as given – in the War Diary of 23rd (Northumbrian) Division, held at the National Archives under reference number WO 167/262. The document is not signed, nor does it contain any reference to its authorship.

However, as stated in the introduction to the May 1940 War Diary, it is thought, by the author, that this record was compiled by Lt. Col. SWINBURNE, probably from notes made while in PoW Camp. The typed version is also annotated with manuscript corrections – again, comparing these with the comments made by Lt. Col. SWINBURNE on Captain BURR’s Report suggests that these were made by Lt. Col. SWINBURNE.

This paper should be read alongside Captain BURR’s Report and has clearly been the main source used by various modern authors in their work on the Dunkirk Campaign – to which, again, reference has already been made.

17th May 1940

This day dawned exactly as the previous weeks on the working site except that in addition to the dawn stand-to all Officers had been warned to be ready to move at ½ hours notice and duty Company at five minutes throughout the night.

At noon, Brigadier Kirkup, 70th Bde, arrived and gave Lt. Col. H.L. Swinburne, Commanding, orders to move and take up a defensive position on the Canal du Nord, 1 TS on the right of 70th Bde to make good all crossings of the Canal from and including BERTINCOURT to, but excluding, the road CAMBRAI – BAPAUME – some ten miles in all. 1 TS at that moment consisted of some 660 all ranks, comprised in H.Q. Company, 4 Rifle Companies and I Recruit Company of 75 recruits in the 7th week of their initial training, mainly volunteer soldiers enlisted under a special dispensation permitting volunteer recruiting to the 1st Bn TS.

These with their Training Cadre were organised into 3 Platoons, and I Platoon was posted to each Rifle Company (excluding C Company). Additional ammunition and grenades were issued to Companies, all available tools and fighting equipment loaded on to Battalion transport, less 1- 30 cwt. truck sent to AUTHIE to collect I Platoon of A Company on aerodrome guard (2/Lt K. Calderwood) – this truck was not further heard of nor did this Platoon manage to rejoin until it fell in with Captain Burr’s party on 21st May.

C.O., Adjutant, O.C’s A, B, C, and D Companies and orderlies left on a reconnaissance about 13:30 hours in the two vehicles (8 cwt and 15 cwt) together with one of the only two maps of the Canal du Nord available. Major R. J. Wilby (2nd i/c) to bring up the Battalion in commandeered civilian transport – rendezvous Velu Wood. This transport was promised for 14:30 hours but in fact was not available till 18:30 hours and turned out to be a very mixed lot of decrepit French ‘buses.

This scratch convoy with its French civilian drivers arrived complete at Velu Wood by 03:00 hours the following morning. The highest possible praise is due to 2/Lt C.T. Cohen, the Intelligence Officer, who in possession of the only other map kept the convoy together and on the right route, despite darkness, roads packed with refugees, cratered in places and in others including BAPAUME cluttered up with the debris of air raids on 17th May.

The C.O.’s Recce Party had an uneventful journey as far as BAPAUME which was crammed with transport and refugees fleeing West, and just managed to clear the town before the first air raid took place. So bad was the congestion that more than once the trucks had to proceed cross country. French tanks were met singly and proceeding West and such as consented to stop could give no information except that the Germans were close behind and that their reason for proceeding West was to refuel at BAPAUME. They had obviously panicked and all attempts to arrange an R.V. with a view to joint defensive action was fruitless.

After BAPAUME the road became quite deserted and twice both trucks had to stop, and the occupants scatter, whilst a formation of 13 enemy bombers dropped Ant-Personnel bombs and machine-gunned the Recce Party. One truck was hit but there were no casualties. The reconnaissance was badly delayed by continued air interference but was completed by dark. Battalion dispositions were, on right, C Company (Captain Harker) including BERTINCOURT, B Company (Captain Dempster), D Company (Captain Adams), A Company (Captain Maughan) H.Q. Company in reserve with Battalion H.Q. at Velu Wood.

Companies on arrival at Velu marched direct to defended localities and were in position by 06:00 on 18th May. The day was spent digging in and consolidating strong points at all possible crossings of the Canal which were numerous, as in many places – particularly on the left flank (A Company) where the banks were shallow and broken down – the Canal bed was dry. The C.O. examined the whole line and co-ordinated the defence.

During the morning in the C.O.’s absence Brigadier Kirkup visited Battalion H.Q. and in consideration of the open right flank and the length of the Battalion position, C Company 10th DLI (Captain Kipling) was placed under command. This Company was ordered into position between A and D Companies, enabling the latter to take over part of B Company front and C Company’s responsibility in terms of frontage was shortened enabling it to give more protection to its own exposed right flank.

During the morning enemy Light and Medium Bombers in addition to bombing and machine-gunning refugees on the roads, interfered considerably with the forward Companies, but luckily there were no casualties. The village of VELU was heavily bombed and VELU WOOD machine-gunned, evidently to provoke reply – no return fire was allowed and with H.Q. Company in slit trenches no casualty was sustained to personnel. In the afternoon the Divisional Commander visited the Battalion H.Q. Anti-Tank mines were asked for and promised.

The whole day refugees were streaming Westwards across the Canal, with stories of the Germans close behind and disorganised French troops passed through C Company but no reliable information could be obtained.

18th May 1940

On the evening of 17th May the 235th French Artillery Regiment laagered in VELU WOOD but after agreeing to share the defence and on a fire plan, they unfortunately moved out on the morning of 18th May, en route, it was stated, for VALENCIENNES.

19th May 1940

At 01:30 hours on 19th May orders were received that 1 TS would withdraw from the Canal position – that 23rd Division was re-fusing its right flank and 1 TS would proceed by march route to HENDECOURT with Brigade Reserve, all troops to be clear of the Canal by 06:00 at latest.

Despite lack of communication, all Companies were rapidly on the move and the last man was clear by 05:00 hours. This entailed crossing the road from CAMBRAI to BAPAUME in open country in daylight. It had been observed that German aircraft bombed at 08:00 hours, noon, 16:00 hours and 20:00 hours daily, so march timings were arranged accordingly, and the march – in Section Groups – carrying all arms and for most of the time in hot sun, was completed without incident.

One unrecorded incident of devotion to duty arose in connection with an un-named Corporal i/c N.A.A.F.I. in VELU. He was warned of the move and refused to leave unless he could take his stock and safe. An order was then sent to him to abandon these and join the column – whether he obeyed is not known. All Officers’ kit and baggage other than fighting equipment, men’s’ packs and rations were abandoned at VELU.

The Battalion transport arrived at HENDECOURT at 13:00 hours. A chateau and its grounds at the main cross roads was put into a state of all-round defence and a hot meal issued. This march had been some 14/16 miles on top of 24 hours hard work and two practically sleepless nights – unfortunately troops’ rest was disturbed by a considerable amount of L.M.G. fire which had been rumoured to be parachutists which, after all safety precautions had been taken and a general stand-to staged, turned out to be some drunken French soldiery. At HENDECOURT the Unit found an abandoned 25pdr Gun and limber and tractor in good order. This was handed over to the Royal Artillery.

On this day some additional Boys Anti-Tank Rifles were issued to the Battalion. Only one man in the Unit had ever fired one. At VELU WOOD the Battalion also received three French 25mm Anti-Tank Guns, and whilst at HENDECOURT 2/Lt W. Noble who has previously been in Q. Battery Royal Artillery (Anti-Tank) successfully found some ammunition and on orders made up three Gun Teams and practised them for two hours. Unfortunately, owing to a later misconceived order the guns had at the critical time gone forward with the transport – they might have proved their value in casualties to the enemy.

During the period at HENDECOURT C Company, 10th DLI, found a roadblock and observation post on the road junction CAMBRAI – ARRAS, 3 Km North of HENDECOURT.

In pursuance of orders, C Company moved off at 19:30 hours, the remainder of the Battalion leaving HENDECOURT starting an hour later, the whole to proceed by march route to THELUS to later take up a defensive position on the LA BASSEE CANAL. C.O., Adjutant, Company Commanders and guide party left by transport at 19:45 hours. On reaching MONCHY (or GUEMAPPES) the part was halted by road blocks. Brigadier Kirkup arrived and stated the position had altered for the better and there were new orders. O.C.’s 10th and 11th DLI were also present.

1 TS was to proceed by march route to SAULTY via BEAUMETZ, there to rest for 72 hours. O.C. 1 TS specifically asked for orders as to what state of defence SAULTY had to be put into and was informed that as nothing was to be expected than, at the worst, a few enemy armoured cars cut off from their base, it would be sufficient if the main road was picketed.

As SAULTY was a further 16/20 miles and as all ranks were completely tired out, Brigadier Kirkup ordered that the Unit should rest for the night at NEUVILLE VITASSE and the transport proceed to SAULTY, off load, return and be used to ferry the Battalion from NEUVILLE to VITASSE (this is a misprint in the Report and should clearly read SAULTY).

By this time, C Company 1 TS had passed the road junction where they should have borne left for WANCOURT, en route for NEUVILLE VITASSE, and by the time their order of march had been reversed, the leading Company behind them had reached the road junction. This caused some confusion as 11th DLI were also on the same road by that time. It was fortunately, however, a bright night – practically full moon – despite which enemy aircraft overhead failed to register any hits on the column.

20th May 1940

The Unit’s arrival at NEUVILLE was completed by 03:00 on 20th May and the transport, under 2/Lt Dunn was at once ordered to SAULTY to offload and return without delay. Captain J.B. Burr with Billeting Party, including French Liaison Officer (M. Guerin) was also sent forward to SAULTY in C.O.’s 8cwt truck. Road picquets were posted.

At dawn on 20th May enemy aircraft commenced to reconnoitre the village from low altitude. Full concealment was practised as previously ordered and no movement was allowed, though Companies were to be ready to move at 5 minutes’ notice.

Staff Sergeant Perkins, i/c some 140 mixed R.A.O.C. and A.M.P.C. in the village reported and asked for information and orders, as he had seen no Officer for 24 hours. This mixed body was taken under command, about 20% had rifles and 20 rounds of ammunition – the remainder were unarmed. At 06:50 hours refugees reported German tanks between NEUVILLE and ARRAS. Questioning suggested these reports were reliable; other refugees reported enemy tanks on the other flank.

At 07:00 hours C.O. gave orders for the Battalion to move by march route MERCATELFICHEUXBEAUMETZSAULTY; head of marching column to be picked up by 1 TS transport on arrival. Unit to move tactically, prepared for all-round defence and leap-frogging by Companies.

Order of march as follows: A Company to MERCATEL to road block flanks and hold till C Company had passed through them (MERCATEL some 4 Km from NEUVILLE VITASSE).

B Company to road block to flanks and hold road junction on road ARRASBOIRY (close to railway and about 2 Km from MERCATEL) till A Company passed through.

C Company to hold North-West end of NEUVILLE until D Company had passed through.

D Company to road block and hold South-East end of NEUVILLE till 08:00 hours. To move at once.

Force less A, B, C, and D Companies to move in following order: Battalion HQ, H.Q. Company, A.M.P.C., R.A.O.C., C. Company 10th DLI.

Forward Companies responsible for flanks on move. 400 yards between Companies; 100 yards between Platoons; 25 yards between Sections, moving on each side of the road. Second in Command (Major Wilby) to move with B Company; Adjutant (Captain Murphy) to remain with rear Company and co-ordinate defence of NEUVILLE.

07:15 hours Battalion H.Q. moved off at head of marching column, B and A Companies having moved off at 07:05 approximately.

07:45 hours – Flight of Hurricanes were observed machine-gunning ground at about 2 Km North of NEUVILLE. (The nationality of these machines was not known at the time.)

B Company, 10th DLI moved off as Battalion H.Q. reached MERCATEL and on the same road. Lt. Col. Marley (Commanding 10th DLI) saw C.O. 1 TS. Reported no contact with enemy and no information or fresh orders. He then went forward by motor-cycle. This Company was therefore moving just in front of H.Q. Company 1 TS (causing later, as will be seen, some confusion by amalgamating with C Company, 10th DLI, who were under command, whilst this B Company was not).

09:00 hours Battalion H.Q. reached B Company who reported in position and all quiet. Battalion transport arrived at road junction at railway (B Company position). Part H.Q. Company and R.A.O.C. and A.M.P.C. were loaded onto transport.

09:05 hours message received from O.C. D Company and Adjutant that part of 11th DLI transport had passed through from direction WANCOURT, reporting enemy tanks on road WANCOURT – NEUVILLE, but reliability of statement doubtful. That, at 08:15, no enemy had been seen and all was quiet and that D Company were commencing to withdraw through C Company as ordered (message destroyed before capture).

2/Lt Sordy was sent forward on leading truck with I Section Anti-Tank Rifle and I Section Light Machine Gun to guard right flank at road junction at FICHEUX (viz. ARRAS road and where route turned at right angles to West on main road) and Lt. McGregor was ordered to go forward and make tactical reconnaissance of SAULTY with a view to all-round defence.

This Officer apparently completed his task as he arrived at SAULTY having got through FICHEUX before fire opened and actually established contact with the left Company of 5th Buffs (Lt. Col. E.H. Allen). This truck left about 3 minutes before the remainder of transport.

As no motor-cycle was available C.O. 1 TS (Lt. Col. Swinburne) as all was quiet ordered Major Wilby to continue with withdrawal as ordered and, taking Intelligence Officer (2/Lt C.T. Cohen) and three Other Ranks set off in 8cwt truck for Brigade H.Q. 3 Km away at BARLY, to acquaint Brigadier of clearly altered position and to enable, if necessary, a diversion of route at BEAUMETZ to save time in the obviously altered situation.

When 300 yards short of FICHEUX fire from left front was opened on C.O.’s truck and probably at same time on troop carrying trucks then out of sight round a bend at entrance to village. Fire subsequently ascertained to be from 5 or 7 Light Machine Guns or Machine Guns sited on a track converging on FICHEUX from South-West and range about 300 yards.

First burst shattered windscreen of truck and stopped engine and fired the truck. Enemy infantry were also in action including snipers out in front of enemy Forward Defence Lines. C.O.’s party returned fire. C.O. endeavoured to work forward to organise H.Q. Company in transport but enemy interposed. Efforts of this party sandwiched between two enemy forces to break through or to return to Battalion H.Q. were frustrated. (The sentence then continues by saying “many being killed” but this phrase has been deleted in what appears to be Lt. Col. Swinburne’s manuscript corrections to the document).

B Company, 10th DLI had halted on MERCATEL side of railway and, during halt, C Company 10th DLI had overtaken them and the two Companies had moved forward together (Captain Kipling – commanding C Company – was killed, and no explanation for this is forthcoming). The joint Company passed through B Company 1 TS just as C.O. 1 TS moved off in truck, and when fire opened they deployed astride road FICHEUX – Railway being pinned by fire on a bare forward slope. The whole of the ground between FICHEUX and MERCATEL was entirely devoid of any cover whatever except a few small patches of knee-high corn and a very small coppice just to South of Railway. The ground rises from MERCATEL to a ridge, and embankment carrying the Railway falls to midway between FICHEUX and Railway, and rises to FICHEUX. Remainder of action can be followed by Companies.

Battalion H.Q. at road junction. C.O.’s party fired on first by L.M.G. from North end of FICHEUX. Enemy cut off advance. C.O. attempted to return to Battalion H.Q. over open ground but was frustrated by enemy forward positions and then cut off by enemy tanks coming in from left front. He then attempted to return round reverse slope of slight hill to right flank but after reaching crest was again cut off by enemy tanks and infantry coming in from right flank. After tanks passed was forced to North-West by enemy infantry. Then made Brigade H.Q. but was again cut off in BEAUMETZ and eventually captured near AVESNES-LE-COMTE during the night of 22nd/23rd May. Two Other Ranks of 11th DLI who he found were killed on 21st May by M.G. fire from a French Armoured Column.

D Company 1 TS (Captain E.T. Adams) remained in position at East end of NEUVILLE without incident and commenced to withdraw at 08:15 hours passing through C Company when on road between NEUVILLE and MERCATEL heard firing in rear. Captain Adams remained with one Platoon to help withdrawal of C Company. Company – less one Platoon – proceeded by march route to Railway (Battalion H.Q.) and were then caught up by Captain Adams and remaining Platoon in commandeered cars. Just as fire opened at FICHEUX. One Platoon (2/Lt Hunter) sent to left flank to work behind enemy L.M.G. posts – an attack which was within bayonet distance of succeeding but for intervention of enemy tanks. D Company less one Platoon advanced round North side of slight hill on Right flank. They were ordered to split into small parties and some succeeded in escaping, pinned down by enemy tanks and after heavy casualties. Captain Adams’ handling of his Company, personal gallantry in reconnaissance on a bicycle under direct and heavy M.G. fire and promptitude in getting his Company into action were particularly of note.

C Company 1 TS (Captain G.D. Harker). At 08:25 hours, immediately after the withdrawal of D Company, C Company was attacked by enemy Armoured Fighting Vehicles from both flanks. Owing to having three roads to watch with one Anti-Tank Rifle its position was open and two crews were shot off the Rifle before it was over-run. Resistance was offered from houses but these were soon in flames and after substantial casualties in half-hour’s fighting as the line of withdrawal was cut to rear and both flanks, and as ammunition was finished, survivors surrendered. Captain Harker and a small party escaped and remained at large for three days.

A Company 1 TS (Captain H.S. Maughan) remained at MERCATEL till D Company had passed through, the last Platoon of which reported, correctly, that C Company were cut off. As 40 enemy vehicles were counted on ARRAS road and other Armoured Fighting Vehicles on the Right (South-West) flank the company withdrew inwards, joining in front and reached lines of coppice where enemy tanks came in from both flanks and also across Railway to front. Anti-Tank Rifles were rushed out to flanks and part of the Company took cover in coppice which was then heavily shelled by tanks. After tanks had passed through the Company twice, one group surrendered and the tanks covered them until arms were dropped.

B Company 1 TS (Captain J. Dempster). On fire being opened from FICHEUX Captain Dempster went forward to make a recce. He was badly wounded and in the resultant delay in his returning D Company passed through and were ordered to stage a flanking attack while B Company continued to hold flanks on the Railway and pinned enemy by fire. They were over-run by tanks from front and rear and being in very slight natural cover sustained considerable casualties till given the order to break up into small parties and make to the North.

H.Q. Company (less half the Company forward in transport) fortified two buildings at road junction which were set on fire by enemy shelling and survivors forced into the open where they were captured.

B and C Companies 10th DLI were over-run by tanks in the open and whilst small parties got away under orders the remainder were killed or captured.

Transport party H.Q. Company under command 2/Lt J.K. Dunn. When the transport was fired on, the leading driver was killed. Troops left trucks and lined ditch and then occupied a farm on the North side of the road. Later, one or more trucks appear to have been got away by 2/Lt Dunn. The remainder of the party defended the farm against enemy infantry until the farm was set on fire and survivors were bombed out and surrendered.

During the action one enemy tank was stopped by fire and burst into flames. Another tank was stopped and remained stationary without firing for the remainder of the action.

Fire opened at FICHEUX at 09:15 hours approximately. Enemy tanks appeared and came into action:-

5 tanks on Left front – 09:45 to 10:00 hours approximately

7 tanks on Right front – 10:00 to 10:15 hours approximately

6 tanks on Right rear – 10:45 to 11:00 hours approximately

4 tanks on Left rear – 11:00 hours approximately.

Organised resistance lasted from 08:30 hours at NEUVILLE and 09:15 hours at FICHEUX till 12:30 hours and spasmodic firing of small arms continued till 16:00 hours by isolated groups.

To sum up the action. The result caused five hours delay to a German Armoured Division and Motorised elements. This was confirmed by German Officers who subsequently interrogated British Officer Prisoners of War. They also expressed amazement at the use of 23rd Division as fighting troops, being fully conversant both with the organisation, equipment and state of training reached, and, further, the tasks the Division was sent to France to do.

They also expressed their admiration and surprise at the resistance offered. This delay was worth much to the Defence of CALAIS (as the late Brigadier Nicholson i/c Calais Defences subsequently confirmed) and also to DUNKIRK, so the sacrifice which entailed over 100 killed of the Tyneside Scottish, over 50 of the two Companies of 10th DLI, and a further unknown number of A.M.P.C. and R.A.O.C. was not in vain.

When all Companies were over-run, orders were given as far as possible to break away in small parties and to make North-West. Many such parties remained at liberty for periods up to two days in enemy country.

Apart from the devoted leadership of Junior Commanders who, by fearless example, did much to stiffen untrained troops inadequately armed, there were many individual acts of gallantry which should be recorded.

Lance/Sergeant Chambers, the Provost Sergeant, in desperation was seen to charge down a German tank individually, to board it and endeavour to insert his rifle muzzle into the embrasure. He was killed.

Acting/Sergeant Wynn, though twice wounded, manned a Boys Anti-Tank Rifle, two crews of which had already been killed and kept it in action until over-run by tanks.

Two young soldiers of less than three months’ service, after both being wounded during the erection of a road block under fire, refused to go to the rear and manned the block and continued firing till over-run from a flank.

Corporal Monaghan, his own Bren Gun being put out of action, crawled 200 yards and salved another – the crew of which were casualties, and which was lying in full view of a German tank.

A Section of Recruits with under eight weeks training, their ammunition expended, calmly on orders fixed bayonets to receive an enemy tank approaching them – a futile but heroic gesture – surrender never occurred to them.

A Junior N.C.O. of less than six months’ service i/c a Section of similar Recruits with enemy tanks within 100 yards was heard in a steady voice giving perfect “Drill Book” fire orders to his Section – indicating the targets with precise care though they loomed up like haystacks in a farmyard – again unnecessary, but what a wonderful antidote to panic.

C.S.M. Morris and C.S.M. Parmenter were both killed manning Anti-Tank Rifles whose crews were all casualties – both old soldiers who had done much in formation of the Unit to instil the steadiness, examples of which they died demonstrating.

C.S.M. Newton, i/c of two forward Platoons of his Company within 400 yards of enemy machine guns, to steady his men calmly strode about under heavy fire explaining to his men how “interesting” it was as he was within a few hundred yards of where he was wounded in the Great War 1914-1918.

L/Cpl Laidler – a Piper to the last – taking his pipes into action and being killed with them.

All these and many other incidents too numerous to mention, and many others undoubtedly existing but unknown, by troops who had not even completed their individual training, and who in the broiling sun were lying so exhausted after working and marching with all equipment for some days, that many instances were observed of men falling asleep in the face of enemy tanks.

The enemy infantry should have been able to over-run all opposition by 10:00 hours at least. Their reluctance to come to close quarters and to leave the work to their tanks, despite the delay so involved in an operation where speed was essential, is perhaps the highest tribute that can be paid to the steadfastness of the other Ranks of the Tyneside Scottish with their rifles, bayonets and little else, save a few Boys Rifles and some Brens and Lewis Guns, some of which latter issued only on the eve of battle, and to troops untrained in their handling, turned out to be Drill Purpose and incapable of firing a single shot.

It must be recorded that after the action the German forward troops were considerate and as helpful as possible to the numerous wounded, but the survival of many of them is due solely to the care of captured stretcher bearers and others who set up a dressing station in a barn where they all remained for three days until taken over by rear German medical units.

So far as can be ascertained after a lapse of five years, no Officer or Other Rank escaped from the action at FICHEUX, except one Officer and a handful of men in one truck who were forward with the leading transport.

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