FORTY THIRD LIGHT INFANTRY FROM THE OUTBREAK OF WAR TO DECEMBER 1939
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY 1939-1945
At the outbreak of war the Regiment was at Hyderabad Barracks, Colchester, where it received orders to mobilize on the 1st September, 1939.
Its first task was, appropriately, to wire in Butlin's holiday camp at Clacton ready for interning aliens, and a party of five officers and three hundred and twenty other ranks did this job while a company went off to guard vulnerable points in Norfolk. Meanwhile, what remained of the Regiment moved out to form a camp at Berechurch Park, a few miles out of Colchester, and to this reservists came and the detached wiring party and vulnerable point guards returned.
The camp was fairly well wooded and tents were well dispersed under trees. The weather was very hot and the ground hard, so that transport could get about anywhere. Meanwhile, steps were taken to lay on water for a permanent camp.
We had addresses by the colonel to companies, and by the brigade commander, Brigadier K. Anderson, and by the divisional commander, Major-General D. G. Johnson, V.C., D.S.O., M.C. The latter walked all round the Regiment and was heard to say, as he went along the ranks of D Company: "They're tough," and later, again: "My God, they're tough!"
Meanwhile, fitting of equipment and promotions were completed by the 10th. Most of the men had never fired the Bren gun, and firing of this weapon and rifles was carried out. We also did some sweltering route marches and completely spoiled a farmer's field by some night digging.
Leave was arranged for forty-eight hours, but it was stopped before the whole Regiment got away.
In the middle of September the weather got cooler, and arrangements were made to move into billets, involving very hard work, as all billets were private houses taking two or three men each.
On the 25th of the month we got orders to move, and on the 27th the transport and carriers, under Major Colvill, left for embarkation. On the same day Major Bailie took an advance party to Ramillies Barracks, Aldershot, whither the Regiment moved on the 29th September. A parade was held the following day for inspection by the colonel of the Regiment.
On the 1st October the Regiment embarked at Southampton after a train journey from Farnborough. H.Q. Company, commanded by Captain Wykeham, put up quite a good improvised band of mouth-organs.
The voyage to Cherbourg was uneventful. We sailed at night under escort of three destroyers and arrived at dawn. There was a momentary hitch when we nearly hit another ship.
We spent the day at Cherbourg in rather a dreary railway station, and entrained and moved off at about 1500 hrs. That night was spent in rather crowded circumstances, steaming slowly eastward.
Before dawn the Regiment reached Sable and marched along very slippery roads in full marching order about five miles to Bonessay, where billets in barns were found for the men and private billets for the officers. A and C Companies (Majors Conant and Richards) were detached at Gastines, about halfway between Bonessay and Sable.
Our transport joined us here, and we spent five days in these billets, doing some marches through very English-looking countryside in its autumn colouring. C and D Companies had a withdrawal exercise.
The Regiment left Sable at night after an evening spent in the station yard. The journey northwards, punctuated with stops and offers of refreshment, took the Regiment through Rouen (11th October) and Arras and the Somme battlefield, finishing in the middle of the night at Meurchin. The Regiment marched hence to Wingles, where it was billeted in empty houses and a cinema.
The Regiment stayed at Wingles until the 29th October. It worked on preparing a defensive position around Seclin, the chief work being the digging and revetting of anti-tank obstacles, the dimensions of which were altered from time to time by the experts.
On the 30th October the Regiment moved up to Tourcoing and found itself in an area occupied by the French.
In Tourcoing the Regiment was billeted for the most part in wool factories which were partially,working. The officers lived in rooms in occupied houses and there was (as there had been at Wingles) a central though rather crowded regimental mess.
The first task of the Regiment was to prepare an anti-tank obstacle behind the frontier defences, which were then manned by French who did not appear too anxious to hand over any part. This was, however, soon settled, and the Regiment took over, planned and started to dig trenches along the Mont Halluin sector. Troops were taken out daily and dug in all weathers, sometimes coming back very bedraggled spectacles.
The Regiment had a visit, while working on this sector, from His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester, and also marched to a mass parade where it was inspected by the King.
The canteen started at Wingles carried on first in a butcher's shop and later in the church room of a friendly abbe, where a Christmas concert was given and later a party to about four hundred children. The band borrowed the instruments of a town band for these shows and for church-parade services. Here the practice was started of hiring English films from Lille and showing them weekly, and later bi-weekly, to the troops.
Later the Regiment changed its sector and took over one on the north-east of the town. The main frontier defence before the war was an anti-tank ditch parallel with the frontier, with pillboxes, blind to the front, firing laterally down it. This raised many problems of siting of additional defences. A series of section and sub-section posts was settled, and construction was begun, and later a number of concrete pillboxes was started on some of the sites.
One company at a time took over the manning of the pre-war pillboxes. The weather became very cold just before Christmas. Snow fell thinly and a good deal of ice formed on the roads, which made the pave very slippery.
There was an alarm of threatened invasion of Belgium by the Germans in the middle of November, and the Regiment was at short notice to move for several days, but this died down. Plans for the Regiment to move into Belgium were made.
Christmas dinners of pork bought out of the profits of the canteen were arranged for the troops. These profits were also used to distribute a weekly sum of 2.50 francs per head for additional food.
While at Tourcoing Major Conant, Lieutenants Edmunds and Jephson, Second Lieutenant Pulteney and a party of warrant and non-commissioned officers went for a tour of the Maginot Line, attached to the Royal Fusiliers, and came back with the badge given by the French, bearing the words "They shall not pass."
While at Tourcoing concert parties started to come to the theatre at Roubaix, and transport of the Regiment was used to take parties to see them. The shows varied.
All ranks also enjoyed the luxury of regular and excellent baths in the first-class municipal baths which included not only slipper-baths but a fine swimming-bath.
Leave was started just before Christmas, but at first was confined to those who had arrived in France in September and was limited, in the case of the Regiment, to the transport, carrier platoon and advanced party. This caused some heart-burning, as the Press had announced leave for all.