FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION JANUARY TO MAY 1940
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL1 1939-1940 1
On Wednesday, the 17th January, Reveille was sounded in the small hours. After breakfast companies paraded independently at 0500 hrs. The Battalion paraded in full marching order, including the large pack and a blanket on the back.
Southampton the port of embarkation was reached by 1130 hrs.
At about 1600 hrs the boat, a Liverpool—Isle of Man packet sailed down Southampton Water and anchored in the Solent until midnight. 1
As dawn broke on the 18th January the coast of France could be seen in the distance. In the morning the weather was again intensely cold. As the ship neared Le Havre it was seen that snow lay everywhere.
Once on land troops sat down in a vast building which had been part of the Cunard-White Star facilities in the port.
In the afternoon the Battalion entrained for its short journey to the Lillebonne district, about twenty miles from Le Havre.
From the detraining station to billets companies had marches varying from two to six miles on icy roads, still carrying the heavy pack, starting in the half-light and ending in darkness. Billets were mixed and spread out over a large area: A and B Companies at Gruchet-la-Vallasse, C and D Companies at Grandcamp, and Battalion headquarters and H.Q. Company at Auberville. Most men were in open barns with straw.
On the fourth day the transport moved off in convoy for the forward area. Their two-hundred-and-fifty-mile journey through strange country in almost unbelievable conditions was a fine effort. Drivers, vehicles and, equally important, loads all arrived complete at Wahagnies.
The rest of the Battalion travelled by rail, leaving late on the day after the transport. There had been a heavy fall of snow during the night and with companies having not less than six miles to march to Bolbec-Nointot. On arrival at the station the usual French troop train was found—a long line of cattle trucks, each with the inscription Chevaux 8, Hommes 40.
After a long and tiring journey the main body eventually detrained at Libercourt, where a guide met the train.
The weather was still intensely cold and dirty snow lay everywhere. Of the companies, A, C and H.Q. were in Wahagnies itself, B in a large farm on the outskirts, and D two miles away at La Neuville. On arrival hot meals were cooked and eaten in darkness.
Wahagnies (“Waarknees” to the troops) was a dull town in a dull district. Situated on a slight rise, the view to the south and west was as black and depressing as any concentrated mining area; ugly slagheaps dotted the skyline with hardly a break. To the north the country was more open with a few scattered hills, which provided good vantage points for reconnaissance. Immediately north-west of the town there was plenty of wooded country which, although not ideal for training, provided a variation from Greenham Common and interesting new tactical problems.
Companies were billeted in a variety of buildings. A and C were in schools and other houses in the town; C Company’s school was a modern building and made a good billet. B Company occupied a large farm just outside. H.Q. Company lived in an extensive disused factory which had also been a granary. It was not big enough to take the whole company, two surplus platoons having a cottage each elsewhere in the town. The grounds of the factory were extensive and sufficed for a transport and carrier park. D Company was billeted in an agricultural village just east of Wahagnies.
Halfway between Douai and Lille, Wahagnies was on the fringe of the divisional area, headquarters being at Henin Lietard. The other two battalions in the brigade were within ten miles of the 1st Bucks at Petit Attiches and Tourmignies. Soon after arrival in the forward area the 4th Royal Berks left the division and were replaced by the 2nd Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment. This and other exchanges were made to strengthen the division by bringing in a proportion of Regulars. The 4th Royal Berks departed to the 2nd Division, whence the 2nd Glosters came. At one time it was hoped that the 43rd would join the two Territorial battalions of the Regiment in the brigade, but a change of policy sent them to the 143rd Brigade and the 2nd Glosters came in their place.
While settling down in Wahagnies the Battalion was almost denuded of officers. Courses, attachments and sickness all helped to reduce the number. One of the first was the commanding officer. The cold-weather spell of the last fortnight at Newbury and the first two weeks in France had its effect and he succumbed not without a struggle. He was evacuated to base and later to England, leaving Major Sale in temporary command, who, after a week or two, was confirmed in his appointment and promoted acting lieutenant-colonel. Major Heyworth took over second-in-command. The Battalion now found itself in the unusual position for 1940 of having no officer in the strength, except the quartermaster, who had seen active service.
When the thaw set in the Battalion took its place with all other front-line troops of the B.E.F. in helping to dig the Gort Line, which was part of the so-called extension of the Maginot Line from the northern point of the Franco-German border along the Belgian frontier to Dunkirk. The 1st Bucks helped with the construction of the corps reserve line.
Route marches were continued weekly, distances at first being maintained at the Newbury level and later increased. It was generally agreed that twenty miles on the roads in the Wahagnies district were the equivalent of twenty-five miles on English roads. Feet became gradually hardened to the cobblestones.
All the band instruments and silver bugles were taken to France and often used. Every Sunday a Battalion church parade was held in the square at Wahagnies with the band in attendance.
In April a draft of about fifty other ranks arrived from the Essex Regiment.
In the first weeks of the month news of the German invasion of Norway and Denmark made the B.E.F. sit up and take notice. The Battalion moved out of Wahagnies at a few hours’notice; it had long been planned to use the town as part of G.H.Q. New billets, reconnoitred previously, were not far away. So short was the move that when the leading vehicle of the Battalion reached its destination the rear vehicle had not started.
D Company remained in situ at La Neuville and was joined there by C and H.Q. Companies. Battalion headquarters moved to Petit Thumeries and A Company to Martinval; B Company were a little farther away at Deux-villes , A Company joining them three days later.
When the flap died down after two weeks A, B and part of H.Q. Companies returned to Wahagnies.
About the 20th April Lieutenant-Colonel Burnett-Brown returned to take up the command he had vacated in January. Lieutenant-Colonel Sale reverted to major and left soon afterwards for a course at the senior officers’ school in England. 2
ON Friday, the 10th May, the enemy invaded Holland and Belgium. The news reached the Battalion early in the morning. Immediately moves took place to vacate Wahagnies for G.H.Q. troops. As Battalion headquarters, H.Q. and C Companies had remained at La Neuville after the April scare, only A and B had to move—back to Deux-villes. These moves were completed by midday. It was not known exactly when the Battalion would have to leave the Wahagnies district, but it was known that it would not be for a day or two. The roads were crammed with advanced B.E.F. divisions going into Belgium.
For three days an unending stream of convoys passed through Wahagnies, La Neuvilie and Deux-villes. Except for the lack of armour the sight of such unbroken mechanised force was encouraging. No one could possibly foresee that within twenty days the B.E.F. as a fighting force would almost have ceased to exist.
14th May.- The Battalion left for Belgium in troop-carrying transport. The brigade joined the divisional column at Orchies and after crossing the Belgian border the route followed on through Tournai, Ath, Enghien and Hal to Alsemberg. Although the Battalion was not bombed, there was air fighting overhead and numerous traces of bombing could be seen along the route. It was dark by the time Hal was reached. Just beyond Alsemberg (slightly to the west of Elsemherde, a village on the Brussels— Waterloo road) the Battalion debussed and marched three miles back to billeting areas in and around Alsemberg. Battalion headquarters, D and H.Q. Companies were in the southwest of the town with the others in the northwest. The 48th Division as a whole received a congratulatory message from General Viscount Gort, the commander-in-chief of the B.E.F., on their good traffic discipline during this move from France into Belgium.
15th May.--At first light the town was machine-gunned from the air, but there were no Battalion casualties.
In the early afternoon the commanding officer, with 0 Group began a reconnaissance of the area with a view to preparing reserve positions. While on this reconnaissance the commanding officer was called away to brigade, where he was given the orders which he passed on to company commanders at a conference held at 1700 hrs. Colonel Burnett-Brown said that the brigade might be called on to carry out one of three roles: (a) To relieve Moroccan troops who were sorely pressed on the right of the B.E.F. (b) To counter-attack through the Moroccan positions. (c) To remain in Alsemberg and the neighbourhood.
The Battalion was to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. At 2200 hrs orders were issued to move in thirty minutes, but it was nearly midnight before companies met at the rendezvous the Brussels—Waterloo road junction, the column of march being led by the carrier platoon.
16th May.--After a march of eight or nine miles, during the early part of which the column was sometimes halted and often obstructed by refugees, Belgian and other British troops, the Battalion reached a village, Joli Bois, south-east of Waterloo at first light on the 16th May. It was then that Second Lieutenant I. D. Watson, liaison officer to the brigade, brought changed orders; the Battalion was to take up a defensive position covering an anti-tank obstacle.
Two companies, D and A, were on the forward slope, with a road and stream below them and the Meccano-like anti-tank obstacle running obliquely across the farther slope. To the astonishment of all, at 0900 hrs the gate where the anti-tank obstacle crossed the road was lifted to let the morning train come through, bringing Belgian civilians to work as usual. The inter-company dividing line was a lane running back to the main road. After a further delay while boundaries were fixed with the 2nd Glosters, who were on the right in Joli Bois, and the 4th Battalion, who were on the left in the southern end of the Foret de Soignes, platoon positions were settled and sections dug in.
The Battalion front extended some thousand yards covering the gaps where two roads passed through the obstacle. The 2nd Glosters’ right flank was open.
Of the rear companies. B occupied a large block of buildings. known as Les Six Maisons, and C a trench system to the left of them.
As the 2nd Glosters’ front was so vast that they were unable to cover it adequately, D Company’s position was extended to the right, and as a further safeguard C Company was moved to the east side of Roussart, a position between D Company and the Glosters.
In the morning the Battalion was attacked by dive-bombers, but with surprisingly little effect. In the afternoon, however, bombs narrowly missed A Company’s headquarters and a splinter from another bomb killed a H.Q. Company driver, Private Hammond, who was the Battalion’s first battle casualty.
During the afternoon it was learnt that Lieutenant-Colonel Hon. N. F. Somerset D.S.O.,M.C., commanding officer of the 2nd Glosters, had taken over command of the brigade from Brigadier Hughes.
As soon as it was dark the quiet of the day ceased and the Battalion was subjected to a mild bombardment from the air.
17th May.--At 0300 hrs on the 17th the Battalion was ordered to withdraw and to be clear by 0800 hrs. Although under sporadic artillery bombardment, the withdrawal was carried out without casualties. Second Lieutenant Lee, D Company, observed enemy tanks massing on the farther side of the obstacle just before his platoon position was vacated. D Company was covering the brigade’s withdrawal with a company each from the other two battalions. The enemy armoured detachments fortunately moved away to the right.
During the withdrawal most of A Company lost touch with the main body, one platoon failing to rejoin until after the survivors were back in England. The Battalion marched to Hal, crossing the River Sennette by one of the few bridges which still remained intact. After half an hour’s halt the march was continued westwards towards Druymieren, north-east of Enghien. B Company, having guarded the railway bridge on the eastern outskirts of Waterloo, marched to Druymieren independently across country via Hal, arriving before the main body (less most of A Company), which had an exhausting march, joining up with B at about 1930 hrs. Enemy aircraft twice strafed the column on the way.
By the end of the day the policy of long weekly route marches had already been fully justified. The Battalion arrived comparatively sound and fit, having covered thirty miles. During this stage of the withdrawal more than one party of the division, with its transport, was left on the wrong side of the Hal Canal, as the bridges had to be blown in order to delay enemy striking forces which were preparing to cross.
At Druymieren a welcome hot meal was served; many men had had no breakfast. Afterwards all ranks rested for a time in an orchard. At a brief conference company commanders were told to be ready to move at 2230 hrs and to take up a position eight miles away at Hattendries. Soon after the Battalion moved off, the road became so congested with refugees that it was impossible to make headway and the column halted for a short time. At midnight the head was at the crossroads on the main road running northeast from Enghien, some three miles from the town.
18th May.—When the column moved on again, progress continued to be slow and practically ceased when the Enghien-Leerbeck road was reached, owing to the incredible congestion. Columns of transport, three and four abreast, struggled along, mixed up with marching men. The absence of any form of traffic control was most marked. Troops were so tired that at the frequent halts they were apt to sit down and go to sleep in the same movement. Rousing them again was no easy matter. At 0300 hrs the congestion was not so chaotic, and the Battalion, less B Company, which was ahead, took a turning off the main road and was directed into a wood a mile and a half away. 3
DURING the 17th May the commanding officer had shown increasing signs of fatigue until at 0400 hrs he collapsed. Major Heyworth at once took over command and left to find brigade headquarters and get orders.
B Company had reached Hattendries, where it remained while Major Viney returned in search of the main body. By sheer good luck he found it. It was agreed (Major Heyworth being at brigade) that because of the congestion on the roads companies should move to Hattendries across country, while Major Viney (now acting second-in-command) should take the transport by whatever practical route could be found. Using lanes and side-roads it reached Hattendries before the companies.
The division was covering the withdrawal of the other two divisions in the I Corps and of the 5th and 50th Divisions, which were being detached for the defence of Arras and Vimy Ridge. The brigade was to hold the Enghien—Ninove road, with the 1st Bucks in reserve. The streams of vehicles passing by belonged to other divisions withdrawing.
Eventually the Battalion reassembled on the main road, which was by now comparatively free of traffic. Enghien was avoided—it was burning furiously and the Germans were shelling it—and the column was soon marching on the Enghien—Ath main road. The day was extremely hot and everyone was thirsty; most men were past hunger.
Although the Battalion had not been detailed as a rearguard, there were in fact no troops between it and the enemy. B Company and some of A reached the area of Ath soon after this episode. Feet were washed in the river and a meal started. The rest of the Battalion came in at intervals, finishing with the transport and, curiously, some of the missing men of A Company, who had not been seen since Waterloo.
At 2359 hrs the Battalion was ordered to move again with the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards covering the withdrawal. A brilliant moon made visibility remarkably good in the open, at the same time emphasising shadows, and keeping sentries on the alert. Intermittent machine-gun fire could be heard on the left, but all was quiet in the area of the factory.
19th May - At 0100 hrs the Battalion withdrew, the Dragoon Guards having arrived to take over. Alternate moonlight and darkness made movement dificult, but companies met at the rendezvous down the road. There was a feeling of being chased, of slipping away in the dark and of a situation which, although bewildering, was not yet out of hand. Men were puzzled but still confident.
The night march began at 0230 as the first signs of dawn were beginning to show. Many of the men were marching almost in their sleep, but the knowledge that troop-carrying transport was waiting farther along the road spurred them on. Firing was heard at intervals, and at one point the column halted for half an hour while a patrol from the leading company, C, and a section of carriers investigated firing that was coming from a suspected enemy tank four hundred yards off the road; the patrol covered the tank while the Battalion went past.
It seemed a long way to the troop carriers, which were reached at 0630 hrs about three miles beyond Leuze. Only nine miles had been covered from Ath, but it seemed much more. March discipline continued to be good.
The troop carriers drove round and past Tournai as far as Wez-Velvain, where the Battalion debussed. The transport arrived after having been severely bombed coming through Tournai, casualties, however, had been light, but a water truck and an ammunition truck were lost.
An opportunity was taken to call in and re-allot all weapons which had become unevenly distributed during the retreat. Meanwhile, at a most inopportune moment—orders came for a move three miles south to Lesdain. In some way (it was not explained how) the 143rd and 145th Brigades had each got into the other’s place.
After a short and uneventful march to Lesdain companies were quickly dispersed in all-round defence, another meal was eaten, guards posted and for many there was a good night’s sleep for the first time for several days.
Monday, the 20th May, was the first day of recuperation for a week. The 48th Division was on the right flank of the B.E.F. and the 145th Brigade on the right of the divisional front, with the 4th Battalion at Bleharies and the 2nd Glosters on its left towards Hollain. The 1st Bucks was in reserve and was given three roles: 1.To protect brigade headquarters in Lesdain. 2.To round up parachutists and saboteurs. 3.To send support to forward battalions in the event of the river being crossed and those battalions being unable to deal with the situation.
Lesdain was a pleasant village lying three miles west of the canalised Escaut (River Scarpe) on high ground overlooking the valley beyond the river where the Germans were already assembling. The regular ration supply had broken down, but the quartermaster sent up a hundred eight-pound tins of biscuits from a Lille factory and the transport officer added a bottle of beer per man and three dozen champagne. B Echelon was brigaded at Rumegies, just over the border in France.
Weapons were again resorted, but most of the day was spent in preparing defences against tank attack round the perimeter of the town. Companies had large fronts, with B roughly to the north, D to the south, C to the west, and A in open ground to the east.
During the day the Battalion’s platoon of the brigade antitank company was placed under command and used to supplement the defences of Lesdain.
21st May - The night was comparatively quiet, as was the morning of the 21st. In the afternoon, however, there was a fairly heavy enemy attack at Bleharies, and B Company was ordered there as a reserve. Then the company was redirected to Rongy, where it spent the night improving posts and strong-points and making anti-tank obstacles. C Company, under Captain Barry was ordered to a point on the river near Bleharies, where the enemy had made a penetration. As soon as the company counterattacked, the enemy withdrew hastily over the river. C Company remained in the area for the night and until dusk continued to seal off small enemy penetrations; the enemy crossed at various points in turn in small reconnaissance parties but were driven back with heavy casualties.
22nd May - In the early hours of the 22nd the commanding officer, Major Heyworth, ordered the companies still remaining in Lesdain to leave their positions and move to the northern edge of the town, with the result that A, D and H.Q. Companies deployed in the nursery gardens to the north-west. They were to be ready to go north to help the 43rd Light Infantry on whose front a more serious penetration had been made north-east of Lesdain in the area of Hollain.
In the morning, when an enemy bombardment started, companies moved into the cellars. It continued intermittently for four hours. The explosions were noisy but did little damage. D Company was sent to replace B at Rongy, and A Company to patrol south of Lesdain in search of parachutists. C Company returned from the successful action on the river bank.
At about 1500 hrs. A Company left Rongy for Lesdain, while D Company, after a good meal, set to work to improve the defences.
A warning order to be ready to move was received at 1800 hrs, followed by orders, rather long and complicated, at 2300 hrs. The Battalion was to occupy the Gort Line just forward of Rumegies, five miles away by the direct road. Companies were to march there, the A Echelon transport, under Major Viney, taking weapons and ammunition. At the best of times it would have been a risky move in the circumstances to separate companies from their weapons, and as it turned out the transport’s move was troublesome from the start. Besides being a dark night a patchy mist had sprung up making contact between vehicles difficult. The column became divided soon after starting, and it took Major Viney four hours to find the errant vehicles.
Meanwhile, the companies had arrived at the Rumegies position without any weapons except rifles and an occasional Bren. The orders were to relieve the lst/7th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, but that battalion had only reconnoitred the positions with a view to occupying them. The Battalion intelligence and liaison officers had made a quick reconnaissance of the area the day before, and it was a little disconcerting when the Warwicks’ rear party frankly admitted that they knew only as much about them as the 1st Bucks. There was little difficulty, however, in finding the positions of the forward companies, B and C, and the right rear company, A (the last-named beyond the main road running from Rumegies across the border); but in the darkness D Company could find nothing in the way of prepared positions to indicate where the platoons should be.
There was a worse dilemma at Battalion headquarters. It was nearly dawn and still the A Echelon vehicles had not arrived with the weapons; but while searching for any troops on the Battalion’s right flank Captain Saunders, commanding D Company, happened to meet Major Viney with the missing transport and directed them to Battalion headquarters.
23rd May-Daylight showed that the positions being occupied were far from complete. The Battalion’s sector included, and stretched five hundred yards to the north of, Rumegies. The defences were part of those constructed earlier by the B.E.F. and consisted of blockhouses connected by a roughly dug line of trenches covering a stream. The reserve positions were eight hundred yards back on a slight rise, commanding a fine field of fire. The wide company frontages made any effective depth in the defences impossible.
By 1600 hrs the positions were fit to hold. The day had been conspicuous for the absence of aircraft, although marks of explosions made it obvious that the area had been heavily raided.
Orders came through from brigade in the early evening. Company commanders were summoned and told that the Battalion was to withdraw between 2000 and 2130 hrs after relief by French and British troops. A rendezvous was fixed and cooks’ trucks were sent there to prepare hot meals. The French troops, who were to occupy the right of the Battalion sector, were in no hurry and arrived haphazardly in odd sections, covered with loaves and cooking pots. They agreed to take over at 2045 hrs and the Battalion completed its withdrawal.
Companies ate good meals at the rendezvous. The march to Nomain which followed was hindered by a congested route. Most of the division appeared to be withdrawing on the same road, vehicles, horses of French units and men becoming inextricably mixed. After a period of apparently insoluble muddle, when B and D Companies somehow got a quarter of a mile ahead of the others, the Battalion crossed a field to the main road and marched on to Nomain.
The whole brigade was to put up in Nomain, which was deserted except for large contingents of French cavalry occupying many houses. Major Viney had reconnoitred billets in the town and when the Battalion arrived at dawn orders came through to rest for the day. For the first time since the move forward all could sleep at the same time.
Almost as a matter of course rest was interrupted. At 0800 hrs the Battalion was placed at an hour’s notice to move and by 1000 hrs everyone was excited at the new prospect of “rest billets in Calais.”
24th May.--Company commanders brought the good news to their companies. It was on this day, the 24th, that the men first showed signs of restiveness. If they had had some serious fighting it would have been different, but they had been marching almost daily and had dug and occupied seven positions, in none of which they had fought. Meals and sleep had been scarce and—most important of all—they were completely unaware of what was happening; this last was equally true of the officers. The Germans had broken through in the south and the Dutch had collapsed—that was the sum total of knowledge. Intelligence reports, if they existed, never descended below brigade.
The time of arrival of the troop carriers was often postponed, but at last word came through that they would be a mile out of the town at 2130 hrs. The order of march was detailed and companies were ready to embuss at the right time. Then the start was postponed for a further half-hour. When the vehicles did arrive it was as much as the Battalion could do to squeeze into the small number provided. 4
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 1: September 1939 - June 1940 Pages 49-50, 2. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 1: September 1939 - June 1940 Pages 71-82, 3. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 1: September 1939 - June 1940 Pages 95-100, 4. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 1: September 1939 - June 1940 Pages 133-140