9th Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers - May 1940

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1 May 1940 – Monchy le Breton.

Settling in.

2 May 1940

First request for working party received from Officer Commanding 686 Company, Royal Engineers for work on Aerodrome site. 65 Other Ranks of W Company formed the party.

Heavy thunderstorms caused flooding of camp site.

New respirators Mark VI received from DADOS 23rd Division and issued to personnel.

3 May 1940

Camp site very wet and soggy after rains. Day spent draining Camp Area.

2nd Working Party of 64 Other Ranks at work on site.

4 May 1940

Y Company employed on site.

5 May 1940

Church Parade.

6 May 1940

Major-General W N Herbert G.o.C. 23rd Division visited the Battalion this morning.

48 Other Ranks arrived this afternoon, posted to the Battalion from No.1 Infantry Base Depot, Rouen.

7 May 1940

Work on site continues.

8 May 1940

Major L C Thomas promoted Acting Lt Colonel, Lt’s Ainsley, T V H Beamish, J Thornhill and 2/Lt C L Irwin promoted Acting Captains.

The Commanding Officer, Lt Col Thomas and the Adjutant, Major Crawhall, visited the 2nd Battalion RNF today.

9 May 1940

Work on the site continues.

10 May 1940

04:30 – 05:30 hours. Enemy aircraft appeared overhead, at about 5,000 feet, travelling eastwards; they encountered severe anti-aircraft fire and one was seen to be shot down. No bombs were dropped.

The C.O., Lt Col Thomas, attended a Training Conference at 23rd Division HQ at 10:00 hours.

19:30 hours. More enemy aircraft overhead. They were again driven off by heavy AA Fire.

11 May 1940

Instructions were issued today for the defence of MONCHY LE BRETON.

12 May 1940

23:00 hours. Hostile aircraft overhead.

23:30 hours. Orders received from 23rd Division that all Battalion trucks and lorries, except one, were to be taken at once to HQ 10th DLI at NUNCQ.

X Company patrolled the Camp and site perimeter all night as a precaution against any landing of air-borne troops.

13 May 1940

01:00 hours. Battalion transport under command of Transport Officer, 2/Lt T D Darling, left for NUNCQ.

03:30 hours. Message received from Transport Officer, 2/Lt T D Darling reporting arrival at NUNCQ.

10:00 hours. Instructions were received from 23rd Division that the Battalion must “stand-to” between the hours of 03:45 and 04:45 until further notice.

Work on the site continues.

14 May 1940

Instructions received from 23rd Division that all woods in the vicinity of the aerodrome site must be searched at dawn and dusk until further orders.

Work on the site continues.

15 May 1940

01:30 hours. Battalion transport under 2/Lt Darling returns to the unit.

12:45 hours. Maj Gen Herbert G.o.C. 23rd Division visited the Battalion and gave orders for Battalion HQ to move to LILLERS and take over Vulnerable Points, at present guarded by the 5th Royal Sussex. In the afternoon, the CO, Lt Col Thomas, the Adjutant, Major Crawhall and the five Company Commanders (Captains Hart, Armstrong, Ainsley, Berey and Lt Wilkinson) visited the Battalion HQ and Company HQs of the 5th Royal Sussex and made arrangements to take over the guarding of the various Vulnerable Points.

16 May 1940 – Lillers.

The Battalion left to take up its new positions. This movement was completed by 23:00 hours and Headquarters were established as under:-

Battalion HQ – LILLERS (Lt Col Thomas)

HQ Company – LILLERS (Lt Wilkinson)

W Company – VALHOUN (Captain Ainsley)

X Company – Seclin (Captain Hart)

Y Company – Seclin (Captain Berey)

Z Company – Bruay (Captain Armstrong).

17 May 1940

The CO, Lt Col Thomas, visited all Company HQs and posts during the day.

16:00 hours. Battalion HQ was informed by 3 Corps that the enemy had broken through the French line.

An immediate location statement of the Battalion was called for.

17:00 – 18:00 hours. Col Voisin, sub-area Commandant Lillers, called concerning the local defence of Lillers and the CO undertook to place guards with Anti-Tank Rifles on the main roads entering the town from the North East, North and North West.

20:30 hours. The CO received information from 3 Corps that the enemy were advancing north-west towards B.E.F. rearward area and that 23rd Division were forming a defensive flank. No further information of our own troops or the enemy was received, though rumours persisted concerning the gravity of the situation. Air Raid alarms were constant and enemy aircraft flew over the town. The Battalion remained in a state of complete readiness on all its Vulnerable Points and local defence positions.

18 May 1940

The situation was unchanged and tension remained high. The CO received information at 3 Corps HQ at 14:00 hours that the French army had counter-attacked and driven the enemy back with heavy losses and consequently the situation in the right flank of the B.E.F. was much easier. It can be perhaps assumed that this intelligence was the source of the briefing to Brigadier Kirkup which led him to allow a rest period in the march of 70th Brigade from the Canal du Nord, and thereby contributed significantly to the disaster which overtook the Brigade on the morning of 20th May. It is nor yet known whether the claim of a counter-attack was justified.

Constant air raid alarms continued and enemy aircraft were active in the vicinity. The 2 i/c, Major Cowen, whilst reconnoitring in the vicinity of LENS-AVIONS saw bombs falling on LENS Station. Six low-flying bombers appeared to be attacking escorted by at least one fighter aircraft which subjected his car to machine-gun fire. The car and occupants were unharmed.

19 May 1940

14:15 hours. Precautions were slightly relaxed but guards were still kept on all approaches.

Orders received at Battalion HQ from 23rd Division for the Battalion to concentrate at LESTREM by 10:00 hours the following morning. Orders were sent to Company Commanders to concentrate under Company arrangements and move to LESTREM by march route or by Government or requisitioned transport according to distance of posts and transport available.

The CO, Lt Col Thomas visited BETHUNE and procured transport from an RAOC Dump to assist the move of the Battalion.

20 May 1940

Battalion HQ moved from LILLERS to LESTREM and the Battalion, less one Platoon of Y Company, was concentrated there by 10:00 hours. This Platoon of Y Company had a great distance to cover and reported at 12:00 hours.

21 May 1940 – Lestrem.

As a result of information received 2/Lt Sanderson went to Haverskerque to try and get into touch with 70th Infantry Brigade which had been reported in that area. He found Brigadier Kirkup with the remnants of his Brigade, and returned to Battalion HQ to report this. In the afternoon Captain Izod arrived from the 23rd Division with the information that General Herbert was reforming his Division at SECLIN and that the 9th Battalion should be prepared to join the rest of the Division there in the near future. In the meantime, the CO, Lt Col Thomas, went to HAVERSKERQUE to see Brigadier Kirkup. The latter had been in communication with GHQ concerning the re-organisation of elements of the 23rd Division in his area. Under instructions from GHQ, Brigadier Kirkup placed himself under the command of 46th Division. Brigadier Kirkup and Col Thomas then went to SAILLY, 46th Division HQ, and saw Major General Curtis. The 9th Battalion The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers were given the task of defending the town of MERVILLE, which was on the Divisional Reserve Line, and the Battalion was instructed to move there as soon as possible. Information was given to the CO that the Battalion would go on half rations with permission to forage locally. The CO returned to LESTREM, held a Company Commanders’ Conference and left almost immediately with the Company Commanders to make a reconnaissance of the extremes of that town. In the meantime the Battalion packed up and moved under the 2nd i/c by march route to MERVILLE, and put it in a state of defence that night.

The night passed quietly except for alarmist rumours and the passage through the town from East to West of various French columns.

22 May 1940 – MERVILLE.

The morning was spent improving the local defences and making contact with neighbouring detachments.

In the afternoon orders were received from 46th Division that one Company be sent to guard the bridges on the canal between BLARINGHEM and ST MOMELIN, with the assistance of a Company of Details. The whole detachment to be under the command of Captain E.B.L. Hart. This Company left MERVILLE at 17:00 hours with most of the Battalion transport. At about 19:15 hours MERVILLE was bombed lightly from the air. Three French tanks were destroyed and the Battalion lost Fusilier A. Carnall killed and Fusilier J. Todd, wounded.

During the evening rumours were persistent that mechanised elements of the Germans were approaching the town from the direction of ST VENANT. Some of these appeared genuine but others were very doubtful. About 23:59 hours Captain Izod and Captain Hedley arrived from 23rd Divisional Headquarters with instructions for the Battalion to move in about an hour’s time, to take up positions on the canal about ST MOMELIN. Steps were taken to pack baggage and 2/Lt Sanderson was sent to contact 46th Division, since 23rd Division were not aware that the Battalion had come under command of 46th Division. 2/Lt Sanderson found Major General Herbert with Major General Curtis at 46th Divisional Headquarters and Major General Herbert confirmed the move of the Battalion to the new positions. Very shortly afterwards, before 2/Lt Sanderson left, General Herbert was in communication with GHQ and in consequence of this the move of the Battalion was cancelled, and instructions given for it to remain in MERVILLE. This information was received at Battalion Headquarters between 02:30 and 03:00 hours.

There was marked enemy air activity over MERVILLE throughout the day.

From the time the Battalion left LILLERS sources of supply had been extremely difficult to find. Their location is constantly changing, consequently, much time is spent by Battalion transport trying to collect stores of food, ammunition and petrol. Local supplies in the town have been given to, our bought by, the Battalion. Evacuated Camps and Billets have supplied the Battalion with a certain amount of transport, arms, stores and ammunition.

23 May 1940

The 23rd was spent in improving the defences of MERVILLE. The night of the 22nd – 23rd was chiefly notable for constant alarms of approaching enemy tanks and sniping from houses in the town. The sniping and most of the rumours were undoubtedly the work of 5th Columnists. At 18:00 hours the Intelligence Officer, 2/Lt Sanderson, was sent to make contact with HQ 46th Division. He received orders for the Battalion to move to MORBEQUE where it was to come under the orders of 137 Brigade.

At 19:30 hours the CO, Lt Col Thomas, and the Adjutant, Major Crawhall, left for MORBEQUE to gain touch with 137 Brigade. Company Commanders left by truck for an appointed R.V. at MORBEQUE at 20:30 hours, the Battalion proceeding by marched route. The CO and Adjutant attended a conference at 137 Brigade HQ at 23:00 hours where the situation was given out as follows:-

The enemy appear to have crossed the canal at various points between ST OMER and AIRE.

The Divisional Cavalry, working under POL FORCE (46th Division) have carried out a recce. of the area and by night fall the position appeared to be as follows:-

The bridges at THIEMES, AIRE and WITTES appeared to be unoccupied.

The enemy were reported at BLARINGHEM and on the high ground at LYNDE where they were being kept under observation by the Cavalry.

The situation to the North West remained obscure.

The Battalion was ordered to move to STEENBECQUE prior to operations at dawn. Another Brigade conference was arranged for 03:30 hours.

On receipt of these orders the CO returned to the Battalion R.V. and took Company Commanders to STEEBECQUE to arrange protective positions till dawn, the Adjutant remaining at the Battalion R.V. to meet the Battalion.

24 May 1940 – Steenbecque.

The Battalion arrived at the R.V. at MORBECQUE at 01:00 hours, where all B Echelon stores were dumped and the Battalion proceeded to STEENBECQUE, arriving at about 02:30 hours.

At 03:30 hours, the CO and Adjutant attended the second Brigade conference where it was decided that the Battalion should re-occupy the bridges between ST OMER and THIEMES, assisted by the Divisional Cavalry.

The CO held a conference of Company Commanders at 05:00 hours when orders were issued as follows:-

W Company (Captain Ainsley) to move to BOESEGHEM and from there to retain a reserve to cover the occupation of the bridges at THIEMES, AIRE and WITTES.

Z Company (Captain Armstrong) to move to LES CISEAUX to make contact with the Squadron HQ reported there. Further action to be ordered on receipt of the situation at BLARINGHEM.

Y Company (Captain Berey) to remain at STEENBECQUE sending an Officer with one Platoon as escort to make contact with the Cavalry at SERCUS and find out the situation there.

HQ Company (Lt Wilkinson) to remain at STEENBECQUE pending reports.

W Company left STEENBECQUE at about 06:30 hours and moved without incident to BOESEGHEM. The bridge at THIEMES was occupied by No. 1 Platoon without opposition (2/Lt Bastable). No. 2 Platoon (2/Lt Hook) detailed for the occupation of the bridge at AIRE was ambushed about a mile beyond BOESEGHEM by enemy in a small wood on the North side of the road. This Platoon, which was accompanied by Captain Ainsley, was forced to take up a position in a farm where it was subjected to heavy machine-gun and mortar fire, but managed to maintain its position – assisted by flanking fire from the Reserve Platoon (2/Lt Sanderson near BOESEGHEM) until relieved by Divisional Cavalry about 12:30 hours.

Z Company failed to find the Squadron HQ at LES CISEAUX and, sighting enemy in the direction of BLARINGHEM, moved to a position on the high ground between LA BELLE HOSTESS and LES CISEAUX.

Captain Beamish, Y Company, moving in the truck to gain touch with his Company Commander, ran in to five enemy medium tanks accompanied by two motor cyclists about half a mile South of SERCUS but managed to escape after ditching his truck.

Captain Berey, Y Company, and the escort Platoon were withdrawn on the light tanks of the Divisional Cavalry, who were withdrawing.

At 13:00 hours, orders were received to withdraw the Battalion to STEENBECQUE. This was successfully completed except for 2/Lt Hook’s Platoon of W Company, which having got out of the farm, was last seen in a ditch by the road leading back to BOESEGHEM. At this point all appeared to be well with 2/Lt Hook and his Platoon but they failed to arrive at STEENBECQUE and their further movements cannot be traced. W Company’s casualties at this point were: two Other Ranks wounded, 2/Lt Hook and 27 Other Ranks missing.

The Battalion then took up position for the defence of STEENBECQUE and from 13:00 hours onwards were continually harassed by enemy tanks from front and flanks. The Divisional Cavalry assisted the Battalion by continual sorties till about 15:00 hours, the situation resembling a fluctuating battle between Divisional Cavalry and enemy medium tanks around STEENBECQUE.

At 15:00 hours the bulk of the Divisional Cavalry were withdrawn and the Battalion remained holding STEENBECQUE. From this time the enemy tanks became bolder and gradually closed in on STEENBECQUE raking it with machine-gun fire from front and flanks.

At 15:00 hours the enemy brought up mortars, and mortar and shell fire continued till about 17:00 hours. From 17:00 hours to 18:30 hours there was a lull, machine-gun and mortar fire opening again from 18:30 to 20:00 hours. During this time, the Battalion held on, adopting alternative positions to avoid the shell fire on the houses, some of which were set on fire.

At about 21:30 hours, the Battalion received orders through the Divisional Cavalry to withdraw. The Battalion withdrew to MORBECQUE without incident and bivouaced in a field with the Divisional Cavalry.

Casualties at STEENBECQUE were:-

Captain Armstrong and 2/Lt Bastable wounded,

4 Other Ranks killed,

16 Other Ranks wounded.

Captain Armstrong died in hospital the next day.

In connection with the action at STEENBECQUE it is interesting to record that the weapons with which the Battalion was armed comprised of the following:-

Rifle and Bayonet per man.

4 Anti-Tank Rifles.

3 Service Machine Guns, less condenser can and tubes.

3 D.P. (Drill Purpose) Machine Guns, to which new firing pins had been fitted.

4 Bren Guns.

3 Lewis Guns (found on MERVILLE aerodrome).

1 Battery of Browning Guns (found on MERVILLE aerodrome).

None of the personnel of the Battalion had ever fired any of these weapons on the range.

25 May 1940 – La Motte.

On the 25th the Battalion was disposed as follows:-

W and Z Companies – MORBECQUE, facing North West in continuation of the HAZEBROUCK defences.

Y Company, facing West South-West, covering the gap between MORBECQUE and the NIEPPE Canal.

HQ Company, facing MERVILLE from the Southern edge of the FORET DE NIEPPE, East of the HAZEBROUCK – MERVILLE road on the flank of 137 Brigade.

Battalion HQ – LA MOTTE.

The day passed uneventfully except for air dive bombing and the changing situation in the FORET DE NIEPPE in which the enemy had gained a footing.

Rations received were now down to 4 tins of biscuits and 7 lbs of sugar for the Battalion.

The following message was received from the G.o.C. 46th Division, during the day:-

“To: 9 R.N.F. From: General H O Curtis, POL FORCE. WELL DONE. If you had not held the STEENBECQUE ridge against tanks and infantry for 48 hours, the Bosches might now be in DUNKERQUE. The 9th have enhanced the traditions of the Fighting Fifth”.

During the day the 137 Brigade were relieved and the Battalion was ordered to concentrate at LA MOTTE after 12 midnight. This was completed by dawn. Heavy rain fell during the night.

26 May 1940 – La Motte.

The Battalion rested in the FORET DE NIEPPE during the day and remained at ½ hrs notice to move from 15:30 hours onwards. The enemy carried out air bombing attacks in the vicinity during the day. Mosquitoes in the forest were very vicious.

At 20:00 hours orders were received to move after dark to DOULIEU. The CO, Lieut Col Thomas, went ahead to arrange billets, accompanied by the QM of the 8th Battalion RNF who had attached himself to this Battalion. The Battalion arrived at 00:30 hours on 27th and were billeted in farms.

27 May 1940 – DOULIEU.

The 27th was spent in resting and foraging for food. Large columns of troops and refugees passed through during the day and many reports were received of enemy progress around MERVILLE and ESTAIRES. The Battalion at this time had been expecting to remain at DOULIEU for a few days’ rest.

At 20:00 hours the CO and Adjutant attended a conference at Brigade HQ where orders were received for the Battalion to move by marched route to KEMMEL via STEENWEREK under orders of 138 Brigade.

The Battalion left at 21:30 hours under the 2 i/c Major F B Cowen, the CO remaining to see the transport loaded. Great difficulty was experienced owing to the shortage of transport and non-essentials had to be dumped. At the road junction about one mile West of STEENWEREK 138 Brigade altered the route and destination of the Battalion which was directed on BERTHEN via BAILLEUL. No such orders were received by the transport with the result that on the morning of the 28th the Battalion arrived at BERTHEN at 04:30 hours after a difficult march in heavy rain and very congested roads, and the transport arrived at KEMMEL at 06:00 hours having been delayed by transport blocks caused by French columns.

28 May 1940 – Berthen.

The Battalion bivouaced in small copses about half a mile North of BERTHEN and rested till 15:30 hours. Intense air bombing and machine gunning of BERTHEN took place during the day and about 09:00 hours patrols were sent out to arrest parachutists seen descending in the vicinity of BERTHEN. These turned out to be the crew of a German plane shot down. About 14:30 hours the Battalion received orders to proceed to TETEGHEM via WATOU, HOOGSTADE and FERNES. The Battalion left at 15:45 hours, arriving at WATOU at 18:00 hours where they were met by the CO, Lieut Col Thomas. Meanwhile, the CO and Adjutant, having seen the transport off from DOULIEU, proceeded on foot to catch up with the Battalion, arriving at KEMMEL at dawn.

No information could be obtained about the Battalion. NEUVE EGLISE and KEMMEL were heavily shelled during the night. On arrival of the transport at KEMMEL two trucks were unloaded and the QM returned with these to DOULIEUL to fetch remaining cookers and rations which had been foraged. It was arranged that if the remainder of the transport were moved to join the Battalion before the QM, Lieut Purcell, returned, a message would be left at the R.V. Meanwhile the CO and Adjutant, in trucks, made circuits of the area between KEMMEL and POPERINGHE in search of the Battalion. Finding no trace of the Battalion the CO chose WATOU as a convenient centre to move the transport and from there to do circuits North West of WATOU.

The transport moved to WATOU about 14:00 hours and joined up with the Battalion that evening. A message was left for the QM, Lieut Purcell, at the dump, instructing him to rejoin at WATOU. Owing to shelling, traffic congestion and salving a ditched lorry, the QM did not arrive till late that afternoon, by which time a shell had landed near the dump burying the message. The message was found by the QM eventually on loading articles from the dump on to salved lorry, but on arrival at WATOU, the Battalion had left and the QM was directed along main route to DUNKERQUE and did not rejoin the Battalion until arrival in England.

At about 18:00 hours the Battalion fed at a farm about a mile North of WATOU and meanwhile various vehicles were commandeered enabling most of the Battalion to be ferried forward on the next stage of the march to HOOGSTADE. Considerable difficulty was experienced at this stage since the route given to the Battalion crossed the main route from POPERINGHE to DUNKERQUE at ROUSBURGGE – HARINGHE, at this place control posts were directing all traffic to DUNKERQUE with the result that a number of lorries became detached from the Battalion.

29 May 1940 – Isenberghe.

At 2 Corps control post, about a mile West of HOOGSTADE, the Battalion was stopped and diverted to a reception area at ISENBERGHE arriving there about 04:30 hours. At 11:00 hours orders were received from 2 Corps HQ that the Battalion was to move to OOST-DUNKERKE where it would come under orders of 12 Infantry Brigade. The CO, Lieut Col Thomas, went ahead to make contact with HQ 12 Infantry Brigade at COXYDE while 2 Corps arranged for available lorries to ferry up the Battalion. The Battalion arrived at COXYDE having been heavily shelled at LA PANNE and completed the remainder of the journey by marched route, arriving about 22:00 hours. Three men were wounded on this march.

On arrival at the area allotted to the Battalion, defensive positions were taken up.

Z Company (Captain Thornhill) was detailed to establish posts at NIEUPORT BAINS and OOST-DUNKERKE BAINS and to patrol the coast between these points, the object being to detect any attempt by the enemy to land forces by sea behind the left flank of 12 Brigade.

30 May 1940 – Oost-Dunkerke Bains.

The Battalion remained in the same positions during the day, the CO visiting the South Lancashire Regiment holding the front line between NIEUPORT and NIEUPORT BAINS. During the day the Battalion was relieved by units of 11 Brigade, and at about 18:00 hours, Y Company under Captain Beamish was sent up to NIEUPORT BAINS to clear up a situation where a small detachment of the enemy had established themselves under the piers: the Company to remain until relieved by the Black Watch.

About 19:15 hours the CO, Lieut Col Thomas, received orders that the Battalion would come under orders of the 11th Infantry Brigade, and that a representative was to report for instructions. Major F B Cowen proceeded to 11 Brigade HQ where he was instructed to report to Commander, Royal Engineers, 4th Division.

From the CRE, orders were received that the Battalion, together with the 225 Field Company, were to dig a reserve line on the right of the Northamptonshire Regiment, and hold it to the last. The line was indicated on a tracing running approximately from a point North East of OOST-DUNKERKE BAINS roughly parallel with the road WALPEN-OOST DUNKERKE BAINS with the right resting on the canal North of WALPEN. The Battalion moved at about 22:00 hours. About 00:15 hours the order was cancelled and the Battalion was ordered to return to its previous positions.

31 May 1940 – Oost-Dunkerke Bains.

At about 00:30 hours the CO Lieut Col Thomas, sent Major Cowen and 2/Lt Sanderson to 4th Division HQ for further instructions. G.o.C. 4th Division gave orders for the Battalion to move to the control post near LA PANNE forthwith, with a view to embarkation to England. 2/Lt Sanderson returned to the Battalion with these orders while Major Cowen remained to collect the transport which had been allotted. The Battalion arrived at LA PANNE at 04:15 hours where about 70 men of HQ Company were embarked during the morning.

Embarkation at [[LA PANNE[[ was very difficult owing to the rough sea and strong flowing tide, and to the limited number of small craft available. At about 12 noon embarkation at LA PANNE was suspended and the Battalion ordered to march to DUNKERQUE to embark at the MOLE. By commandeering various vehicles, the Battalion was ferried along the beach to DUNKERQUE and was embarked on various ships by 18:00 hours. The day on the beach was notable for heavy shelling and embarkation was effected while under heavy bombing and machine gunning from the air.

The Battalion arrived in England in different ships and was distributed to various reception areas throughout the country.

No further information was received concerning X Company until two Officers and 50 men of that Company reported to the Battalion at its concentration area in England.

From the 23rd until the 26th May, X Company were resisting the German effort to cross the canal in the neighbourhood of ST OMER. Captain Hart, Captain Urwin and Company HQ together with one Platoon under the command of 2/Lt Whitton were in action at ST OMER on the 23rd. No details are available concerning this action and no news has been received of this detachment nor has anyone returned.

Meanwhile another Platoon under 2/Lt Ross was at ST MOMELIN and assisted by heavy Gunners resisted German attacks until the 26th, when it was ordered to withdraw. This Platoon lost approximately 1 killed and 8 wounded.

Simultaneously, 2/Lt Dakin’s Platoon was split up into three detachments guarding three bridges in the neighbourhood of ARQUE. 2/Lt Dakin lost contact with these detachments and no further trace of them was found until 14 Other Ranks of this Platoon rejoined the Battalion at its concentration area.