1ST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION - HAZEBROUCK MAY 1940
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL1 1939-1940 1
24th May- As route cards were handed out it was noted with misgiving that the destination had been changed from Calais to Cassel. The route lay through Lille, Armentieres, Bailleul and Caestre. At Bailleul each driver was given a new destination—Hazebrouck. The Battalion was in the rear of the brigade column and was therefore the easiest of the three to detach. After more long halts the column arrived at the outskirts of the town. Nearing Hazebrouck it was noticed that every village had its homemade roadblocks generally constructed of farm carts. At about 1000 hrs. the Battalion entered the town and started cooking breakfast in the main street.
Major Heyworth, company commanders and the intelligence officer made a reconnaissance of the town’s defences, accompanied by Captain A. Campbell, Cameron Highlanders, who was apparently responsible for G.H.Q. defences. G.H.Q. handed Major Heyworth one map of the Hazebrouck area which was the only map of the district that the Battalion was ever to possess. Only after arrival was it learnt that advanced G.H.Q. had been in Hazebrouck until the day before. Now the Battalion was to help guard the rear and flank of the B.E.F.
The G.H.Q. building had been a large school in the Northwest of the town. Major Heyworth had great difficulty in discovering which and how many miscellaneous troops were coming under his command. He managed to extract an approximate list. Artillery (in support) consisted of four 25-pounders and four anti-tank 2-pounders. (In addition, Serjeant Trussell’s platoon of the brigade anti-tank company was still under command.) G.H.Q. also left some two hundred men consisting of orderlies, runners, signallers, drivers and a big contingent of leave men from the York and Lancaster Regiment. There was also a platoon of the 4th Cheshire Regiment with four Vickers guns. As an afterthought, G.H.Q. bequeathed a dozen Boys anti-tank rifles and a few Bren guns with a good supply of ammunition. Later it was discovered that there were a few anti-aircraft guns in and around the town. To complete the assortment of supporting arms, there were some old French and Belgian tanks; but they were in such a bad state of repair that they could only be used as roadblocks. The Battalion was not allotted any wire or anti-tank mines.
Hazebrouck was in the Southwest corner of the semi-circle round Dunkirk. The rest of the brigade was at Cassel, six miles to the north. There were no troops in between except odd patrols of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. By this time the 143rd Brigade had been placed under the command of the 5th Division and was holding a sector on the Ypres—Comines Canal to the Northeast. The 144th Brigade was dispersed on the western edge of the Dunkirk perimeter between Cassel and Bergues. The 44th Division was to the Southeast in the Foret de Nieppe.
At a conference Major Heyworth announced that he had decided to hold that part of the town which lay south of the railway line to Calais and west of that running from Hazebrouck to Douai. These lines formed in part a reasonable anti-tank obstacle. Companies were disposed as follows:
B Company from and including the railway station east and Southeast along the railway to where it crossed the Hazebrouck Canal.
C Company in a line running north-west from the canal along the outskirts of the town to and including the main road leading to Morbecque.
D Company in a line running northwest from the Morbecque road to the railway line to Calais.
A Company in reserve in the G.H.Q. building in the town.
A Echelon transport was kept in company areas, with B Echelon near the main square.
Battalion headquarters was established in a large convent opposite A Company.
25th May.--During the day enemy aircraft flew over the town strafing and bombing, but causing little damage. The day was spent in completing the take-over from G.H.Q. and improving company positions. The relief was completed by 1400 hrs. The night was quiet. D Company reported that the company front could not be adequately held and No. 9 Platoon of A Company was put under the command of D Company.
26th May.--Very little of note was reported during Sunday, the 26th May. A Company sent a patrol along the railway to Morbecque to ascertain if any ammunition trucks were on the line. The patrol did not find any trucks, but reported that the line had been cut in two places. Other A Company patrols went out in search of food, which was now very short; emergency rations were already being used. The carrier platoon patrolled along the road to Morbecque and made contact with an enemy outpost
During the day nearly two hundred men straggled into the town in an exhausted state. These included forty men from a battalion of the Cheshire Regiment with three Vickers guns and three trucks of ammunition. All these men were attached to A Company, where they formed one machine-gun and three rifle platoons. Most of the men were without rifles and ammunition; those who had rifles were issued with ammunition, the remainder being given hand grenades and axes.
In the afternoon Brigadier Somerset visited Battalion headquarters.
At 2000hrs. a warning order was received to be at half an hour’s notice to move. During the day a few enemy tanks were seen in the distance, but well out of range. There was slight enemy artillery activity in the afternoon, no material damage being caused. A large number of enemy reconnaissance aircraft flew over the town. In the early evening a report was issued that six enemy tanks had been seen approaching towards Hondeghem, a mile or so to the north. Two companies and a section of carriers were ordered there; the carriers went, but the move of the companies was postponed.
By this time it was realised that the enemy was in the area and that some form of evacuation was taking place at Dunkirk. Again the night was quiet.
27th May.--In the morning of the 27th the battle began in earnest. The weather had broken at last; it was cloudy, with a heavy shower in the afternoon. All day there was firing, and enemy movement was visible in some part of the Battalion’s area.
By 1100 hrs. B, C and D Companies had all been in action, but were not yet hard pressed. Another platoon of A Company was put under the command of D Company. There was steady shelling and enemy tanks and infantry attacked in several sectors. Numerous tanks were driven off by anti-tank-rifle fire.
At 1200 hrs the enemy started a general attack on C and D Companies. The town was bombarded by infantry, guns and heavy mortars, while flights of enemy aircraft flew over bombing and strafing. The enemy also found the range of Battalion headquarters, which suffered some damage. A Company near by had heavy casualties.
At about this time a wireless message from brigade came in to Battalion headquarters ordering one company, B, the carrier platoon and an anti-tank gun to move to Hondeghem; a reply was sent that the enemy was already there and a further order was received to stand fast. At 1600 hrs. C Company reported that five enemy light tanks had been put out of action by its anti-tank rifles and that one platoon and a section of another had been cut off or killed. A Company was then ordered to establish a fresh line in the buildings behind C Company while the latter withdrew through A Company.
D Company was also hard pressed. B Company was ordered to try to support D Company by overhead fire which it was hoped would prevent a threatened penetration of the town to the west of the railway station.
By 1900 hrs. Battalion headquarters was finding great difficulty in communicating with companies, as even orderlies were failing to get through. An hour later A Company (one platoon with the four composite platoons, the other two platoons being still with D Company) was in position, but only a few men of C Company had withdrawn through A. By this time, too, the shelling of Battalion headquarters and the former G.H.Q., which were large buildings and had probably been spotted, was so heavy that it was decided to move out temporarily to the houses on the other side of the street leading north. The intelligence section had to abandon its observation post in the church tower when it was hit by shellfire. A wireless message was sent to brigade explaining the position and asking for help if possible. Direct speech contact was no longer possible, but Morse messages got through. When an answer came it said that help was coming from the 44th Division from the south.
At 2030hrs. the enemy broke right through D Company’s position with infantry and tanks, and pushed in towards the centre of the town and Battalion headquarters, at the same time working in to the rear and cutting that company off entirely from the rest of the Battalion. Others of the enemy worked to the right flank of A Company and established a machine-gun post covering the road running behind it.
It is difficult to piece together all aspects of the rifle companies’ fighting at this time, but the general picture is of a series of platoon battles; while the Germans, using tanks and infantry, gradually infiltrated through the gaps between company and company and between platoon and platoon.
Nearly all platoons were heavily engaged, particularly those of C and D Companies; for them the battle had begun in earnest at 0900 hrs and had continued all day.
From the direction of the main enemy attack it was C Company and, to a lesser extent, D Company which bore the brunt, but it was only the steady defence of all rifle companies throughout the day that enabled Battalion headquarters and H.Q. Company, having had no close fighting on the 27th, to hold out as long as they did.
That the enemy was able to make penetrations, albeit at heavy cost in men and tanks, was due to the inevitably wide frontages held by companies. Major Heyworth’s plan, was to have all-round defence of the town. To ask a single battalion to defend effectively a town of Hazebrouck’s size was at the very least asking a great deal. Even so, Major Heyworth succeeded not only in providing all-round defence, without depth it is true, but in keeping one company in reserve. This company, A, was used as planned when it went to the support of C where the pressure was strongest.
Meanwhile, at Battalion headquarters there was firing close by and suddenly a section of enemy went past at the end of the road, moving from west to east. They were fired on and scattered. Enemy fire coming from both north and west caused some casualties. Two carriers were driven into position as a roadblock to the north and immediately a tank began firing at the end of the street. It was obvious that headquarters were awkwardly placed and the order was given to return to the convent. The shelling had died down, although fires raged in many parts of the town and small-arms fire was coming from all directions. There was trouble in getting the wounded back, but eventually the regimental aid post was moved into the convent cellars, which were extensive; they ran the whole length of the building with an exit at either end. The wireless truck had to be abandoned and was put out of action.
The move was completed by dusk, when odd sections which had been cut off from their companies, having fought their way through, began to drift in to Battalion headquarters. All rifle companies had been overrun and cut off and very few men were able to reach headquarters. From the very nature of the battle rifle companies, with sections and platoons cut off and out of touch owing to the wide frontages held and the many enemy infiltrations, could withdraw only in scattered parties.
These scattered parties were greatly helped by the action of Captain Pallett, the quartermaster, and the transport officer, Captain Mason, who organised B Echelon drivers, cooks and sundry miscellaneous other ranks into a self-contained fighting force which fought a sturdy rearguard action and enabled many weary men to retire.
By nightfall all touch with rifle companies had been lost and Battalion headquarters were largely dependent for information on the garbled reports of the few men and sections which filtered in during the night. It was only too plain, however, that the Battalion had been split up into “penny packets,” some of which had been overrun entirely, while others were hanging on grimly until darkness gave them the opportunity to extricate themselves. The only obvious and established facts were that Battalion headquarters and H.Q. Company were surrounded; and that the Battalion as a fighting force had ceased to exist.
In a final attempt to re-establish touch with the troops which had been nearest to headquarters, patrols were sent out soon after dark, one to B Echelon and the other to B Company. Second Lieutenant Preston’s patrol to B Echelon very soon bumped into the enemy in the square, where the French had surrendered earlier in the evening, and after a sharp skirmish he ordered his men to return while he tried to get through alone. He was never seen again and was afterwards reported killed.
Second Lieutenant Stebbings’s patrol to B Company succeeded in getting through to the station, but found it and the company headquarters deserted. When they returned it was realised at Battalion headquarters that it and H.Q. Company were the only parts of the Battalion available and capable of fighting another day.
In contrast to the day, the night was almost eerie in its quietness. All except sentries slept a weary sleep. Stand-to was ordered earlier than usual, as no risks were to be taken. Early in the morning parties went across to the G.H.Q. building foraging for ammunition and food. Some preserved stores were found, but not much ammunition. A hot meal was cooked and distributed soon afterwards.
28th May.--As soon as it was light troop movements along the Therouanne (western) road could be seen from a good observation post on the second floor. Both troops and lorries were fired on by a concentration of every available Bren with tracer, and made good targets at fourteen hundred yards. This one-sided target practice did not last for long. Soon the enemy mortars were ranging on the building. At 0630 hrs. one of the ammunition trucks, unfortunately only half-unloaded, was hit and continued exploding for two hours. Firing increased and there were more casualties. To the astonishment of all, at 0900hrs. an enemy battery appeared not half a mile away, firing at Cassel from an open field. Two Vickers guns of the 4th Cheshire Regiment, manned by members of the old Wycombe machine-gun company, were taken up on to the roof. Their firing was most effective, but eventually it produced redoubled and more accurate fire from the enemy six-barrelled nebelwerfers.
At 1000 hrs. some enemy got into the garden of headquarters under cover of smoke and shouted for the Battalion to surrender. At least one of them never left the garden.
Tanks appeared on both sides. Some were hit and at least one put out of action. The same sort of fighting continued for the rest of the morning, by which time most of the transport was on fire, including all the carriers used as roadblocks.
At 1300 hrs a more serious attack had to be faced. Several tanks came past the front and fired point blank at twenty yards. These attacks, coupled with mortar bombing, machine-gun fire and sniping, but countered continually by anti-tank and .303 fire. were maintained until 1430hrs., when there was a well-marked lull for an hour or more. It was found that ammunition was seriously short, but, as over half the attached G.H.Q. troops scarcely knew how to fire a rifle, their ammunition was withdrawn and they were unceremoniously consigned to the cellars.
It was agreed between Majors Heyworth and Viney that as the remnants of the Battalion were obviously not now holding up the advance and the rifle companies had been overrun, added to which brigade had ordered a move out the day before, all who were left should march out and make for the coast that night, provided that resistance could be maintained until then.
During the lull Major Viney discovered two boxes of cigars that he had received at Lesdain. Determined that they should not be smoked by Germans, he went round the posts until everyone, officers, non-commissioned officers and men alike, were all smoking cigars.
But it was the lull before the storm, for, at about 1630 hrs, the artillery started again. This time it was not mortars but heavier stuff, and in quick succession the top and then the second floor had to be evacuated. The chapel wing was now useless. The enemy had the exact range. There were many wounded by now and Major Heyworth decided to go across to the G.H.Q. building to see if it was worth evacuating there. He never returned.
Shells were coming down thick and fast and Major Viney decided that the building must be evacuated at once. The whole building was on fire and the cellars badly damaged. Men who could move, weapons and the very small supply of ammunition left were taken outside into the garden at the east end. The adjutant, Captain Ritchie, who led a party out the other end, was killed very soon afterwards.
Once in the garden, Major Viney, who had perhaps a hundred men but only two Brens and virtually no ammunition, found that the party was trapped. They climbed into one of the house gardens in the Northeast corner, where they were concealed from view. He ordered them to stand fast there until dark, when they would try to make a break, but, if attacked, he told them that he might have to surrender because so many men were unarmed and ammunition was so short. Besides, they were vulnerably placed if discovered and attacked.
Major Viney took a nominal roll of those who were with him and went into the house to watch developments.
It was now 1800hrs and six tanks were bombarding the main building at short range. There was a great roar as it collapsed altogether. The tanks advanced towards it still firing hard. Then a section of infantry came noisily down the street. He ducked down at his window, but he had been seen. Just as one of the Germans threw a grenade into the house he climbed through the window and surrendered his party. The defence of Hazebrouck was over.
Of those who fought in the Hazebrouck action, ten officers and about two hundred other ranks, mostly from rifle companies, succeeded in getting back to England. The gallant struggle against overwhelming odds which the rifle companies fought on the 27th and Battalion headquarters and H.Q. Company continued until the evening of the 28th will remain for ever a noble landmark in the history of the Battalion and the Regiment. They received a rare compliment from the enemy themselves. In a German broadcast it was stated that: " . the defenders of Hazebrouck not only delayed the advance but resisted in a manner truly worthy of the highest traditions of the British Army.”
The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Quarterly Journal Volume 16 Number 91 Page 61
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 1: September 1939 - June 1940 Pages 141-151