11th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry War Diary May 1940

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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 to 11th May 1940

The Battalion continued to supply working parties for construction work at NUNCQ Aerodrome. Alternative shifts – from 07:30 to 13:30 hours and from 13:30 to 19:30 hours – were worked by the 10th and 11th Battalions.

12th May 1940

The Battalion transport was handed over to 10th Battalion who had been ordered to standby to guard aerodromes in the Somme area.

13th May 1940

The 10th Battalion left for ABBEVILLE at 01:00 hours.

The 11th Battalion Signals Platoon (commanded by the Signals Officer 2/Lt C.D. Hamilton) was ordered to lay telephone lines between 70th Brigade HQ at HERLINCOURT and C.R.E. North at MARQUION SAINS. This was completed at 23:00 hours. Cable was also laid between Battalion HQ and NUNCQ Aerodrome.

14th May 1940

The Battalion was ordered to organise the defence of NUNCQ Aerodrome and the village. A road block was erected outside Battalion HQ and HQ Company was placed in Battalion Reserve.

15th May 1940

The task of defending the Aerodrome continued and there were frequent air raid alarms in FREVENT.

16th May 1940

The defence task continued and cable was also laid directly between Battalion HQ and 70th Brigade HQ.

17th May 1940

The Battalion was ordered to standby to move. This was later cancelled but during the afternoon an order was received from Brigade HQ to move, by RASC Troop Carriers, to a defensive position along the CANAL du NORD, six miles West of CAMBRAI. The CO’s reconnaissance party left at 16:00 hours for PRONVILLE. The Battalion embussed in 38 troop carriers and the remaining unit transport at 18:30 hours and followed.

Lt (QM) Collie was left at NUNCQ as Officer in command of the Rear Party and made a start on striking the tented accommodation.

(This was the beginning of the separation of the Battalion into several groups - the War Diary does attempt to tell the story of each of the various parties and the author has tried to add the relevant dates to clarify which group or party is being described. This is complex and reflects again the problems of units without radio communication at a crucial period of conflict.)

18th May 1940

The Battalion debussed at FRONVILLE at 01:00 hours. A, B, C, and D Companies took up their defensive positions on the line of the CANAL du NORD from MARQUION exclusive to the CAMBRAI – BAPAUME Road inclusive (6883).

C Company – commanded by Captain D Blackett – was machine-gunned by German Army Co-operation aircraft and sustained three casualties. Information was received during the day that advanced armoured fighting vehicles of two German Mechanised Divisions, which had passed through a gap in the Allied line, had been seen in CAMBRAI.

Aerial activity, including the bombing of neighbouring villages, and aerial combat between British and German aircraft, took place throughout the day.

At 18:00 hours two German aircrew escaped by parachute from their burning aircraft, after combat with an R.A.F. fighter, and one landed within 100 yards of Battalion HQ in a farmhouse at FRONVILLE. He was shot by French troops.

Instruments from the aircraft, which had been signalling to the advancing German troops, were recovered by the Adjutant, Captain Shipley, and forwarded to Brigade. HQ Company, in reserve at FRONVILLE, was dispersed by platoons, in view of the threat of machine-gunning from the air, and the Anti-Aircraft Platoon opened fire several times.

French tanks passed through FRONVILLE at 19:00 hours after a reconnaissance of CAMBRAI. Movements were hampered by constant streams of refugees.

19th May 1940

An order to withdraw to the railway line MARQUION to QUEANT was received at 02:00 hours. D Company took up a position on the left, MARQUION exclusive to BUISSY exclusive, C Company from BUISSY inclusive to road-rail crossing 6488, B Company from the crossing inclusive to QUEANT rail station exclusive and A Company from the rail station inclusive to QUEANT inclusive.

After proceeding by march route to RIENCOURT church, HQ Company took up a defensive position outside the village. Battalion HQ was in an evacuated house.

Three enemy AFVs were reported seen by Captain F.R.M. Martin of D Company at 16:00 hours when a warning order to withdraw at dusk was received from Brigade HQ to the Battalion, to 1st Tyneside Scottish in reserve at HENDECOURT, and to the 10th Battalion, on our right from QUEANT exclusive to BOISLEUX.

At 16:45 hours Companies were ordered to send 20 men to meet 2/Lt C.D. Hamilton at the North end of RIENCOURT by 21:00 hours. Three signallers were sent out as guides. All Companies were warned to withdraw at dusk to THELUS, five miles North of ARRAS, where transport would take the 23rd Division to another defensive position on the La BASSEE CANAL.

2/Lt Hamilton left RIENCOURT with 40 men from HQ and A Companies – the other Companies having received the message regarding preliminary withdrawal too late – together with the main body of HQ Company. Companies were given a march route RIENCOURT – HENDECOURTCHERISYGUEMAPPE – MONCHY – GAVRELLEBAILLEULTHELUS. Battalion transport was to be used to ferry them throughout the night.

The transport, consisting of 7 fifteen-hundredweight trucks, 3 thirty-hundredweight trucks and the water cart left at 18:50 hours with Battalion stores and baggage.

At this time, Pilot Officer Ratford of the R.A.F was killed when his parachute failed to open after his combat with two Dornier aircraft. He was buried in RIENCOURT by two stretcher-bearers of HQ Company and a cross was erected. (41951 Pilot Officer Frederick William RATFORD of 253 Squadron is shown in the CWGC records as having died on 19th May and is buried in the Riencourt-les-Cagnicourt Communal Cemetery.)

At 20:00 hours Lt. Col. J. Bramwell T.D. left for THELUS with a reconnaissance party including Captain A.R.W. Shipley (Adjutant), Captain C.G.Winter (HQ), Captain J. Welford (A), Captain D, Blackett (C), Captain F.R.M. Martin (D), 2/Lt E. Moscrop (B) and Company runners.

Major C.H.R. Gee M.C. – the Battalion second-in-command – was to meet other Companies at RIENCOURT Church and give them march routes. At 21:00 hours the reconnaissance party was stopped en route by Brigadier Kirkup at MONCHY and Commanding Officers were informed that (according to information given to Brigadier Kirkup by higher authority) the situation had eased.

The Brigadier issued counter-orders for alternative defensive positions to be taken up by Battalions as follows:-

1st Tyneside Scottish at SAULTY


10th DLI in reserve at LATTRE.

Battalion stores were to be dumped in areas allotted by Brigade – WANCOURT in the case of 11th Battalion – and trucks would then be used to “shuttle” troops to their next destination.

After this change of orders, Lt. Col. Bramwell left for WANCOURT to redirect the Companies and was last seen still there. (He was subsequently captured as a Prisoner of War).

Captain Shipley took the Company Commanders and runners to BEAUMETZ via TILLOY-Les-MOFFLAINESBEAURAINSAGNY arriving at 23:00 hours.

BEAUMETZ was full of refugees. Billets were found in Nissen Huts vacated by Royal Engineer Construction Companies and the arrival of the Companies was awaited.

20th May 1940

A, B and part of C Companies arrived by transport at BEAUMETZ at 05:00 hours with Captain W.L Brown RAMC, the Battalion Medical Officer. The transport then left for WANCOURT to recover the stores. D Company and the rest of C had been taken by transport as far as FICHEUX.

From this time the Battalion appeared to be cut off into innumerable parties which became attached to various formations until their arrival in Great Britain from DUNKIRK.

At 09:15 hours panic was seen in BEAUMETZ. Gendarmes reported the approach of enemy AFVs and civil communications were cut. Captain Shipley took command and organised an immediate defence of the village, reporting the situation verbally to Brigade HQ via Captain Brown RAMC. Brigade ordered the Battalion to stand fast and small parties of 11th Battalion and 1st Tyneside Scottish arrived.

2/Lt Dunn, the Motor Transport Officer of 1st Tyneside Scottish arrived with part of his Battalion’s transport and reported their heavy casualties on encountering German tanks at FICHEUX. A few minutes later PSM Boddy and L/Sgt Whatley of C Company entered the village with a small party and reported that they had escaped when part of C Company had been surrounded by enemy AFVs at FICHEUX. Captain F.R.M. Martin (D Company) remained behind.

Captain C.G. Winter and Captain W.L. Brown RAMC were sent to Brigade to report that the Battalion had no anti-tank rifles but that, as yet, no enemy tanks had been seen in BEAUMETZ.

Verbal instructions were then received from Brigade for the Battalion to withdraw to BERLES, making use of available transport, at 10:45 hours. Captain Shipley ordered C Company to take a covering defensive position on the high ground South of GUOY and A Company on the high ground South of FOSSEUX, with B Company remaining at BEAUMETZ. Just before the withdrawal of the final Company Captain Shipley reconnoitred the road crossing at AVESNES (3201). C Company he found were in position but A Company had not passed through GUOY, Captain Welford reporting the presence of an enemy tank in the road bend on the GUOYBAVINCOURT road.

Captain Shipley took A Company out of GUOY to FOSSEUX from where the tank’s movements could be watched.

This AFV was seen to back out of BAVINCOURT for AVESNES. Captain Shipley then sent 2/Lt I.G. Sopwith with one platoon to act as a flank guard to A Company and the Companies were ordered to proceed cross-country for BERLES via GIVENCHY le NOBLE. Captain Shipley proceeded with A Company, via woods, and contacted an Armoured Car unit holding a road block, said to be the extreme right of the British line.

Communication was gained by wireless with a unit claiming to be 70th Brigade HQ. In the conversation, Captain Shipley was ordered, together with Major F. Hall, who had arrived with a detachment from 10th Battalion, to march along the ARRAS – St POL road towards the fork outside FREVENT. The unit gave their position as NIEVILLE.

Marching down the road, as instructed, the party found no transport awaiting them as promised in the wireless conversation. (It is possible, therefore, that this was a false transmission by enemy forces, or fifth column sympathisers, designed to confuse the Battalions).

10th Battalion were contacted at the road crossing at AUBIGNY and Captain Welford with the 11th Battalion force joined that unit for protection. Captain Shipley endeavoured to find transport for the 11th Battalion party, but being unsuccessful, proceeded by truck to THELUS, the original rendezvous. Here he spent the night at the 6th Bn DLI HQ and at 08:00 the following morning, 20th May 1940, contacted the 6th Green Howards in the woods at FARBUS. At 10:00 hours he contacted the main body of HQ Company under 2/Lt Hamilton and 2/Lt Smallwood at FARBUS Camp.

On 19th May 1940, under 2/Lt G.E. Wood, the Motor Transport Officer, the Battalion transport had left WANCOURT, where it had been stopped by the CO, stores unloaded, and then returned to RIENCOURT to ferry D Company to FICHEUX.

A and B Companies were then taken to BEAUMETZ. Orange flares were being fired from 23:00 hours onwards by advancing German units within two miles of RIENCOURT and aeroplanes were continually heard.

At 08:00 hours on 20th May 1940 L/Cpl Allcorn and Sgt Barker, in the front of the Ford 8, CO’s truck, with 2/Lt Wood and Major Gee as passengers, led the transport to WANCOURT for stores and stragglers. Without warning, a column of enemy AFVs was met outside WANCOURT.

The two leading trucks turned right up a small road and the tanks opened fire with their machine guns. (The CO’s truck and its passengers were captured and all four men became Prisoners of War). Pte Winlow in the fourth truck counted six tanks and the remaining trucks were turned round and withdrew at speed, under enemy fire. This remaining convoy, with Privates Winlow, Cooper, Chilton, Bryden, Pigford, Sutherland and Robson as drivers made for DOULLENS where they joined up with a unit of the Royal West Kent Regiment, after being attacked by six parachutists near FREVENT.

Under 2/Lt Hamilton the HQ Company party had, on 19th May 1940, passed through HENDECOURT, 200 yards behind the 1st Tyneside Scottish. At WANCOURT he was told by the 1st Tyneside Scottish of a diversion to the West but, having no direct instructions, he continued on his original route, as ordered. MONCHY was strongly barricaded but was not occupied, so the party continued to ROULX BRIDGE over the River SCARPE where two French soldiers were guarding a large, mined, steel bridge, which they refused to let the party cross. An Officer then took 2/Lt Hamilton some 14 miles to a Divisional HQ, which did grant permission for a crossing to be made. The Divisional Commander advised 2/Lt Hamilton that his reconnaissance had revealed a few enemy tanks in CAMBRAI.

Once across the bridge the party contacted Lt Col. Steele of 6th Green Howards at 05:00 hours on 20th May 1940. The party was billeted while 2/Lt Hamilton continued to THELUS to contact the guide and 70th Brigade HQ, which he had understood would be there. They had not been seen and a message was therefore left with the Brigade Major of 69th Brigade, describing the position of the Company. On the way back, the truck, which had been borrowed from the French Division, was machine-gunned and the driver was wounded. Later, RSM H.T. Dunn left by motorcycle and found Brigadier Kirkup at 23rd Division HQ.

HQ Company, which had been placed under the command of Lt Col Steele, was ordered to take up a defensive position at 14:00 hours on top of a quarry East of ROEUX. It was expected that enemy AFVs would try and cross the Canal, several vehicles having been seen in the vicinity of MONCHY. The position was taken up at 16:00 hours with three Light Machine Guns and rifles. During the early evening and through the night the Company was subjected to continuous artillery fire from the enemy. There were no casualties and all the Company stood their baptism of fire very well.

At a Conference at 02:00 hours on 21st May 1940 it was decided that the Company would be relieved at 03:00 hours. 2/Lt Hamilton took 120 men by march route ahead to THELUS Woods, but the remainder, 100 strong, had still not been relieved by 10:00 hours. The relieving unit was found to have taken up a position elsewhere. 2/Lt Smallwood with those remaining men did not therefore arrive at THELUS until 12:00 hours.

At THELUS, 69th Brigade had taken up a reserve position and the detachment from 11th DLI was placed in rest. During the afternoon and evening German aircraft repeatedly bombed and machine-gunned the camp. There were no 11th Bn casualties, though three Green Howards were killed in the attacks.

At 23:00 hours on 21st May 1940 the detachment under Captain Shipley proceeded by troop carrier to GONDECOURT, South of LILLE, where billets were found in schools. Captain Wellford with 40 men of A Company and the Quartermaster and Chaplain had already arrived.

On 20th May 1940, Lt (QM) Collie and Captain T.O. Elliott, the Chaplain, had been detailed, with 20 Other Ranks, as the Battalion Rear Party at NUNCQ (they apparently had no transport and were working to strike the camp). Lt Calderwood of 1st Tyneside Scottish informed them, as he passed through NUNCQ, of the fact that enemy tanks were in DOULLENS. Passing French troops added the intelligence that the enemy tanks were approaching FREVENT.

At 16:00 hours Captain Brown RAMC, Medical Officer of 11th Battalion, arrived on a water truck to collect medical stores and confirmed the seriousness of the situation.

Lt Collie then took the decision to abandon the camp, at least temporarily, and commandeered three 3-ton R.A.F. lorries which had arrived at NUNCQ in search of their unit. He passed one truck over to Lt Peartree of 10th Battalion and one to a Royal Engineer detachment. He decided to accompany Captain Brown to BERLES and report to Brigade HQ. On reaching there he found that Brigade HQ had departed, whereupon Captain Brown decided to continue his search and 2/Lt Moscrop, who he had met with a party of men, and he, decided to try and return to NUNCQ to where he thought the rest of the Battalion might be travelling.

They were unable to reach NUNCQ however, as French troops had barricaded the road, so he altered his course and arrived at MONCHY-BRETON at 23:30 hours where he found an abandoned camp and aerodrome. As the party now consisted of five Officers and 91 Other Ranks Captain Brown decided to stay the night in the huts.

On the 21st May 1940 the R.A.F. 3-tonner, and the 15-hundredweight truck which 2/Lt Moscrop had brought with him, were refuelled at the petrol dump in the camp. At 06:00 hours 2/Lt Moscrop left in his truck to try and find 70th Brigade HQ. As he had not returned by 16:00 hours Lt Collie and Captain Elliott, with as many men as possible, decided to try and get the R.A.F. truck to SOUCHEZ where, they were told by an Armoured Car unit, the 23rd Division Headquarters were known to be. It was also arranged that the truck would return to MONCHY-BRETON to collect 2/Lts Harrison and Ennis, and the remainder of the party, but, if it had not returned by 21:00 hours the party would attempt to reach SOUCHEZ by march route.

On the arrival of the Collie/Elliott party at SOUCHEZ at 19:00 hours, there was no sign of any British HQ but a passing truck convoy, searching for some 120 men of the 10th Battalion, which had been sent out by 23rd Division, informed them that the Divisional HQ had moved to SECLIN.

The party moved on to SECLIN, arriving at 23:30 hours and reported to the HQ of 23rd Division, telling them that 2/Lt Harrison and the remainder of the party were at MONCHY-BRETON and that 2/Lt Moscrop was missing.

At 11:00 hours on 22nd May 1940 the Collie/Elliott party proceeded to GONDECOURT and reported to Lt. Col. Marley of 10th Battalion.

All medical equipment had been lost en route from RIENCOURT. Captain Brown RAMC of 11th Battalion had left BEAUMETZ with the water truck and six men for GIVENCHY le NOBLE to procure an ambulance from the Senior Medical Officer, GHQ Troops. Captain Brown found no-one there and returned to contact troops withdrawing from BEAUMETZ through GUOY.

GUOY was in German hands so a route was taken via NUNCQ to warn the party there and collect medical supplies. The rear party were taken to the Brigade assembly point at BERLES but by then Brigade had already moved. From there, Captain Brown went North through TINQUES and contacted Brigade near Divisional HQ. Many more men of 11th Battalion were there and they were attached to Brigade until their return to the UK.

22nd May 1940

At 22:00 hours the Battalion left GONDECOURT by troop carriers to take up a position on the River Aa from WATTEN to St. MOMELIN, with an escort of light tanks for protection.

23rd May 1940

At 04:00 hours the convoy was halted at ESTAIRES and turned back by General Herbert, commanding 23rd Division, as the area they had just left was considered to be of greater importance. The troops were very tired after four days and nights of continuous movement and fighting.

The elements of the 11th Battalion were organised with the survivors of the 10th Battalion and the 1st Tyneside Scottish as “Marley” Force under the command of Lt Col Marley of 10th DLI.

The Force was structured as follows:-

Battalion HQ

Lt. Col. Marley (10th)

Major Hall (10th)

Captain Wilkinson (10th)

2/Lt Gill (10th)

HQ Company

Captain Shipley (11th)

2/Lt Hamilton (11th)

2/Lt Calderwood (1 TS)

Lt Collie (11th)

Lt Oldham (10th)

A Company

Captain Stock (10th)

2/Lt King (10th)

B Company

Captain Morrison (10th)

2/Lt Gay (10th)

C Company

Captain Burr ( 1 TS)

Lt McGregor (1 TS)

X Company

Captain Welford (11th)

2/Lt Sopwith (11th)

Y Company

Captain Lawn (10th)

2/Lt Dickenson (10th)

2/Lt Pattullo (10th)

Z Company

2/Lt Watkins (10th)

2/Lt Smallwood (11th)

The rest of the 23rd May was spent reorganising and the troops were able to rest and eat. The two 11th Battalion Companies were dispersed about GONDECOURT which was bombed during the day.

25th May 1940

German aircraft dropped pamphlets urging troops to surrender as they were surrounded.

26th May 1940

Marley Force left GONDECOURT for LIGNY Woods by march route at 02:00 hours, arriving at 06:00 hours. A meal was prepared before leaving at 17:30 hours for Le PETIT MORTIER via SAILLY. From this point until arriving back in the UK no transport was available.

2/Lt King and 98 Other Ranks were sent to guard bridges on the La BASSEE CANAL.

27th May 1940

Arriving at 03:00 hours the 11th Battalion Companies were billeted in a farm until 10:00 hours before leaving for WESTOUTRE via METEREN, crossing into Belgium. The force was machine-gunned and bombed from the air. After marching some 30 miles the force spent from 22:00 hours until 06:00 hours in a wood 1 mile South-EAST of POPERINGHE. All remaining stores and rations were dumped to ferry troops to a point 1 mile North of POPERINGHE which was in ruins.

28th May 1940

Later on the 28th the force left for WESTLOETEREN via CROMBEKE in a heavy storm and spent the night in reserve behind the Canal. Captain Shipley was ordered to stand by with 40 men of the 11th Battalion, 40 of the 10th Battalion and 20 of the Tyneside Scottish as reinforcements to the 50th Division.

29th May 1940

The force left for KILLEM LINDE arriving at 13:00 hours where all remaining transport was destroyed, and at 13:00 hours moved off for ADINKERKE.

30th May 1940

The force arrived at a field 1 mile South of ADINKERKE at 01:00 hours and slept until 04:30 hours when they took up a reserve position to the 8th Battalion DLI. Captain Shipley and his 100 men left for 50th Division at 10:00 hours and HQ Company was in reserve under Captain Welford.

31st May 1940

The force left their positions for LA PANNE on the coast at 02:00 hours, arriving at 04:00 hours. It continued on to BRAY DUNES where in two hours they were only able to embark one platoon in rowing boats, for the bigger ships outside which were evacuating the B.E.F.

After casualties were suffered as a result of shrapnel, General Herbert ordered the force some 10 miles along the beach to DUNKIRK where a destroyer and a minesweeper took the men to the UK, after they had assisted with embarking dozens of stretcher cases under heavy shell fire.

Once the troops were landed in the UK they were dispersed to various camps. Most had brought out their rifles.

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