BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY 1939-1945
10th May.—Regiment in billets at Roost Warendin. Awakened at 0400 hrs. by the sound of aircraft, intense anti-aircraft fire and some distant explosions.
News of invasion of Holland and Belgium and intimation that Plan "D" for advance of Allied armies into Belgium would be put into effect forthwith.
Several German aircraft flew backwards and forwards over the billeting area at a low altitude, but dropped no bombs and were heavily engaged from the ground.
The Regiment packed up and stood by, waiting for mechanical transport from the troop-carrying company to take it forward across the Belgian frontier, where its particular role was one of protection of vital points against sabotage during the move of the B.E.F. to the River Dyle positions.
Troop-carrying vehicles failed to appear as day wore on. Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld, at about 1400 hrs., sent A Company in some vehicles which had turned up straight to the route starting point, and himself went thither to explain if necessary the absence of our serial (Regiments were allotted serial numbers as security against identification.) and to glean any information he could about the progress and conditions of the move.
Mechanical transport arrived at about 1630 hrs.,and, having embussed, the Regiment passed a starting point at Regimental headquarters, together with Regimental mechanical transport, at about 1715 hrs., in convoy under the second-in-command, Major D. C. Colvill, M.C.
The move proceeded without incident until the frontier had been crossed. Once over the frontier, traffic became dense, but moved freely on the whole. On approaching Rongy a German bomber flew at about two thousand feet over the column, which was halted at the bottleneck formed by the village. A British fighter appeared from above and shot it down in flames in a field beside the route. . . . Belgians delighted. The pilot had baled out and was retrieved by Captain Jephson upon landing and handed over to the gendarmerie.
Companies had orders to go independently to the areas to which they had been allotted. A Company (Major Conant) had preceded the Regiment. Locations of headquarters and companies for the protection of vital points were as follows:
Regimental headquarters, H.Q. Company (less No. 4 Platoon and details attached to rifle companies): St. Pierre Capelle.
A Company: Area of Hal—Castre—Enghien, with headquarters in Hal.
B Company: Area of Ath—Leuze—Frasnes-lez-Buissenal, with headquarters in Trieux.
C Company: Guarding all level-crossings along Route "A" from inclusive Leuze eastward to Hal, with headquarters in Ath.
D Company: Area of Enghien—Grammont—Lessines, with headquarters in Lessines.
The area covered by the Regiment with small posts was thus approximately forty miles long with an average width of about seven miles.
Traffic control and the marking of the route provided for by Plan "D" worked with the utmost smoothness, the small, square roadside lights proving a great help to night driving without vehicle lights.
Regimental headquarters was eventually established in St. Pierre Capelle at 0430 hrs. on the 11th May.
The troubles of the convoy started once it had turned off Route "A," the main road Brussels—Tournai, the delay being caused by the complete lack of relationship between the minor roads as marked upon our maps and their existence upon the ground.
11th to 15th May.—This period was spent by the Regiment guarding the vulnerable points in its very large area, whilst the B.E.F. passed through to gain contact with the enemy on the Dyle Line.
It was marked by lovely summer weather and an appreciable amount of bombing, notably at Hal, Lessines, Leuze, Enghien and other large centres. The main road was also bombed at various points, including the cross-roads at Marcq, just south of Regimental headquarters.
The Regiment suffered three or four casualties, two as a result of bombing and one accidentally shot during a search for alleged parachutists in Ath.
Bombing was carried out by formations flying very low, and companies had some practice in anti-aircraft small-arms fire. A post of B Company's lays claim to at least one machine, which crashed.
16th May.—Orders having been received during the 15th May, the Regiment, after the customary long and tedious wait for troop-carrying vehicles, moved during the early hours of the morning by independent company convoys to the area of Wolvenberg, just south of Brussels, where it arrived shortly after daybreak, to be met by Major Conant, who, with A Company from the Hal area, had arrived earlier. From this area the Regiment retraced its steps a few miles and got under cover with all its mechanical transport and troop-carrying vehicles in the wood at Gasthuisbosch, north-west of Alsemberg, where the cooks got to work and all ranks enjoyed a hot breakfast in delightful surroundings. Just as the last vehicles were entering the wood a number of aircraft of both sides appeared and some violent combats took place overhead to the accompaniment of much antiaircraft fire. Fortunately we remained undetected by some enemy reconnaissance aircraft flying fairly low.
After breakfast Major Colvill went to headquarters, 143rd Infantry Brigade, for liaison purposes. It transpired that the Regiment should have come under the command of the 2nd Division from about 0600 hrs., and should have gone direct to the reserve locality at the race-course in the Foret de Soignes, where it was to be at the immediate disposal of the 2nd Division, but not to be used without reference to the I Corps.
After confirming the message at headquarters, 48th Division (it had never reached the Regiment), the second-in-command (Major Colvill) returned to Regimental headquarters and the Regiment was soon on the move again to the race-course in the centre of the Foret de Soignes, which it reached at about 1300 hrs., and had a cold lunch under cover of the magnificent beech trees, two miles from the village of Waterloo.
At 1400 hrs. Major Colvill went to the headquarters, 2nd Division, in a chateau just west of the race-course south of Brussels.
The general situation at this juncture was one of considerable gravity. The 2nd Division was in contact with the enemy to the east and south-east of the foret, with the 1st Division also in contact on its left; but on the right of the 2nd Division no trace could be found of the French North African Division with which touch should have been gained, so that, except for a defensive flank formed by the 2nd Division along the southern edge of the foret, the right flank of the B.E.F. was completely in the air.
The Regiment continued to rest in the Foret de Soignes during the afternoon whilst conferences at headquarters, 2nd Division, resulted in plans for withdrawal across the Brussels—Charleroi Canal during the night of the 16th/ 17th May.
Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld, having been summoned to the headquarters, 2nd Division, during the afternoon, left with Brigadier Gartlan, commanding the 5th Infantry Brigade, for a further conference in connection with the plan, whereby units of the 5th Infantry Brigade, together with the 43rd, were to hold a I Corps "check" line (covered by divisional cavalry regiments) on the line of the main road running north-east and south-west through the Foret de Soignes.
This line was to be occupied by 2200 hrs. and held until 0800 hrs. on the 17th May; the 43rd's sector was from exclusive Terblock to inclusive the railway bridge just west of Groenendael.
Whilst Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld was with Brigadier Gartlan, Major Colvill returned to Regimental headquarters near the race-course and orders for the occupation of the check line were issued to the accompaniment of violent air fighting directly overhead. The tremendous scream from at least one diving machine seemed to presage the immediate bombing of the hitherto peaceful wood. However, apart from the disconcerting din, nothing happened. By 2200 hrs. companies had taken up their sectors, feeling none too secure on wide frontages in the thick forest country.
The night passed peacefully whilst the transport and guns of the 2nd Division streamed through on their way back, and from
17th May.—Dawn found the Regiment waiting expectantly for advanced German troops, with A, B and C Companies up on the line of the main road, and D Company in reserve some eight hundred yards to the west, with Regimental headquarters just north-east of the Groenendael—Brussels road.
A lovely morning with a promise of a hot day and no sign of the enemy following up. Eight o'clock came with still no sign of him; so companies filtered quietly away north-westward, each with a local rear party comprising a section or part of a section of carriers.
Orders for the 43rd were to withdraw across the Brussels— Charleroi Canal by a bridge at Ruysbroeck, thence to a rendezvous in the area of Bruinsbroek (3248), whither B Echelon transport had gone during the night. Divisional cavalry was to cover the withdrawal from the check line from positions west of the canal, whither Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld went and was later joined by Major Colvill.
Companies had a long, hot and trying march to the accompaniment of loud explosions denoting the destruction of the bridges over the canal.
At about midday, just as D Company was passing the Chateau de Coloma, several flights of Junkers 87 Stukas carried out dive-bombing attacks on the roads. D Company suffered no casualties, but direct hits were obtained on the road from the Chateau de Coloma to Breedhout, which wrecked some vehicles. The Stukas dropped like cormorants from about four thousand feet to within a few feet of the ground with an ear-piercing scream.
On completion of the withdrawal the 43rd was to revert from the 2nd Division to its own 48th Division. Consequently, Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld set off during the afternoon to locate the headquarters of the 143rd Infantry Brigade, which he eventually found at Zavelberg, and the Regiment was ordered to bivouac for the night of the 17th/18th May in the wood just north-east of that village.
During the day the roads over the whole area west of the Brussels Canal had become congested with transport of all sorts, interspersed with weary soldiers; and it proved very difficult to collect companies and direct them to the rendezvous. B and D, with Regimental headquarters and H.Q. Company, plus A Echelon transport, were safely under cover in the wood shortly after nightfall, having covered approximately twenty-six miles on their feet after two sleepless nights. They were deuced weary.
A and C Companies had halted for a rest in the early afternoon about Breedhout. It became apparent as the evening wore on that they would not reach Zavelberg in time to get any appreciable rest, and as the men were very weary Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld decided that it would be better to stop them en route and send a meal out to them.
Accordingly, Major Colvill, having located B Echelon and directed them to Regimental headquarters in the wood at Zavelberg, went back to Pepinghen and eventually met Major Conant of A and Major Richards of C Companies, and directed them to a bivouac area for the night south-east of Castre. C Company was at the time passing through Pepinghen, but A was still back at Breedhout.
In the meantime, events had been moving rapidly and the front line of the B.E.F. was to be established upon a line running through Castre by 2200 hrs. It was therefore impossible to carry on with the plan for A and C Companies. Consequently, Second Lieutenant P. Cook was sent out from Regimental headquarters to intercept companies and order them on to Zavelberg.
By about midnight the Regiment, less A Company, was concentrated in Dark Wood at Zavelberg, and all ranks were sleeping like the dead in the pitch blackness.
The absence of A Company was a cause of considerable anxiety. In fact, it was not seen again until the 21st May.
Shortly after midnight on the 17th/18th May Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld returned from headquarters, 143rd Brigade, with orders for the Regiment to move again at once and to cross the canalized River Dendre at Papignies, moving thence to the village of Mainvault, about three miles north-west of Ath. The route was: Zavelberg—Herinnes—Heysbroeck*—Bievene— Bois de Lessines—Florbecq—Papignies—Ostiches—Mainvault.
Another long and weary trek: about twenty miles as the crow flies and more by the route. Very meagre rest had been enjoyed by companies after the long and fatiguing withdrawal of the previous day.
However, it behove us to be off without delay. As the Castre line was not to be held after 0800 hrs., an immediate effort was made to get under way. All the vehicles had been run head to tail down a very narrow avenue with high banks on either hand, but fortunately there was an exit which obviated the necessity for backing out. No lights could be shown, of course, but somehow all ranks were roused and the Regiment moved off in inky blackness at about 0230 hrs.
Having seen the transport and companies started along their route, Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld, with the second-in-command (Major Colvill) and acting adjutant (Second Lieutenant Nicholson), returned to the Dark Wood to confirm that nobody and nothing had been overlooked in the darkness and suddenness of the move. The first item was a startled soldier of C Company who, having slept like the dead in the thick undergrowth, had waked to find daylight in the wood and not a sign of his comrades. He must have been relieved to be able to bundle into the back of the Humber.
The second item was a 15-cwt. truck standing disconsolately in the avenue with its load. It started up at once, but after travelling a hundred yards the cause of its abandonment was clear— a broken back axle—so there it stayed.
After a further wait in the hope of A Company putting in an appearance, a course was set for Mainvault to touch the route of companies at various points. Eventually Mainvault was reached at about 1100 hrs. and billets arranged. Good prospects of a night's rest were destined never to be realized.
Meanwhile, companies were footing it back across the River Dendre whilst B Echelon were settling in and the vehicles and lifted men of H.Q. Company were making ready at Mainvault. The day wore on and no companies appeared. During the afternoon Major Colvill was summoned to headquarters, 48th Division, at Ostiches, where it transpired that certain formations which should have been taking up a defensive sector on the west bank of the Dendre had, for some reason or other, failed to appear. In view of the fact that the withdrawal was being closely followed up, military police posts had been established with orders to be shown to all officers at the crossings over the Dendre requiring sub-units to establish defences and co-operate with any units which were in position where they crossed.
In these circumstances, B, C and D Companies had been diverted, and were being held in reserve at headquarters, 48th Division. The companies on the Dendre, B and C, were in action with German advanced troops for the first time during the day. Of A Company there were as yet no tidings beyond a report that it had been seen crossing the Dendre at Lessines that morning. At a conference at headquarters, 143rd Brigade, at about 2000 hrs. orders were issued for further withdrawal during the night of the 18th/ 19th across the Escaut River. This time troop-carrying vehicles were to be employed and the Regiment was to embus at 2230 hrs., going from a starting point at the north-west corner of the Bois de Carmois via Frasnes-lez-Buissenal and Leuze to a debussing point at Ramecroix; thence via Antoing to organize a defensive position about the Bois de Calonne.
By the time these orders had been received the Regiment was situated as follows:
Regimental headquarters and H.Q. Company: in Mainvault.
A Company: missing.
B Company: half had reached Mainvault and half was on its way thither from Dendre.
C Company: still out of touch and involved in the action on and withdrawal from the River Dendre.
D Company: complete at Mainvault
19th May.—The troop-carrying vehicles, as ever, were very late, but when they did turn up hi the small hours of the morning of the 19th May the Regiment embussed, consisting of Regimental headquarters, H.Q. Company, less certain details, B Company, less two platoons which had still not come in, and D Company.
When the brigade convoy had got under way, Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld, with Major Colvill and the acting adjutant, made straight for the Bois de Calonne to reconnoitre a possible defensive area. In the course of this reconnaissance at about 0800 hrs. the reconnaissance party observed with considerable misgiving the approach of twelve German heavy bombers flying at about two thousand feet down towards Antoing and over what appeared to be the debussing point for the brigade. Salvo after salvo of bombs was rained down upon the area and very soon smoke could be seen rising and an incessant rattle of exploding small-arms ammunition could be heard. Anti-aircraft fire was heavy and appeared to be accurate. Streams of Bofors tracer gave the impression of going right through the hulking great machines, but to the disappointment of watchers not one of the twelve came down.
At this juncture the future course of operations was not very clearly defined and the Regiment was merely required to concentrate in the area of Bois de Calonne, although the general plan was understood to embrace a firm stand on the west bank of the Escaut.
Detailed reconnaissance of the area was continued and in the meantime areas of the thickly overgrown and hilly locality were allotted to companies so that immediately on arrival they could snatch some badly needed rest.
Regimental transport began to arrive and some account of the bombing round Antoing was forthcoming: they themselves hi spite of narrow escapes had come off lightly, but many vehicles had been destroyed and a considerable number of casualties caused amongst the mass of transport which had converged upon the area.
B and D Companies arrived during the course of the morning and together with H.Q. Company were stowed away amongst the undergrowth, whilst Regimental headquarters was established in a farm beside the road leading through the defile which traversed the bois from east to west.
Just as plans for the defence of the locality were complete and the company commanders present were about to meet the commanding officer, orders were received from Brigadier Muirhead to the effect that the 143rd Brigade was to be responsible for the defence of the west bank of the Escaut from the bridge at Vaulx-lez-Tournai southward to a point of junction with the 144th Infantry Brigade near the bend at Bruvelle. The 2nd Division was to continue the defence northward.
The brigade sector was to be held by the 8th Royal Warwicks on the right, the 1st/7th Royal Warwicks on the left, and the 43rd in reserve at St. Maur, whither brigade headquarters was to move from Warnaffles Farm.
Fresh reconnaissance was carried out and during the afternoon the Regiment moved into its brigade reserve area, which was to be held by D Company on the south-east face of the village, B Company on the north-east face of the village, C Company on the south-west face of the village and A Company on the northwest face of the village, with H.Q. Company forming a reserve in the centre. The transport was to remain under cover in the Bois de Calonne until dusk.
Enemy aircraft, including Henschel army co-operation machines, had been active all day and, although it was with considerable relief that we marched away from the defile, some anxiety for the transport was still felt. Sure enough, just as Captain Jephson was getting the first vehicles out from under cover at about 1930 hrs. the first salvo of shells crashed into the defile. However, in spite of the continuous shelling, all vehicles were safely removed and distributed under cover in St. Maur. B Echelon had gone back earlier to the Bois de Pluoy, just north-east of Rumes.
During the afternoon C Company had made a welcome reappearance after its adventures on the Dendre. It had unfortunately been compelled to abandon all its stores, packs, tools and equipment which had been carried on the company vehicles. It had been in close contact with the enemy on the Dendre and was to have withdrawn at the last moment to waiting lorries. As these, however, were not there at the critical moment, Major Richards was faced with the alternative of jettisoning his equipment and using the vehicles to withdraw his men, or trying to withdraw on foot and running a grave risk of being cut off by German motor-cycle troops.
By nightfall the three companies, B, C and D, had dug cover on the outskirts of St. Maur. In addition to the Regiment and brigade headquarters there were actually in and around the village the gun positions of a field regiment, some of which appeared to be woefully conspicuous. Looking out from Regimental headquarters across the valley of the Escaut at the high ground already in German hands, one could not help a feeling of foreboding. St. Maur stood by itself on rising ground with open fields all round. They shelled us a bit that night.
20th May.—A day of considerable discomfort. Shelling began early in the morning and all day long salvoes banged and smashed about among the houses and landed amongst the posts held by companies. Our own guns in and around the village had been very active during the night, pouring shells across the Escaut. Casualties began to occur with some frequency, and vehicles to be damaged. It was decided to evacuate all the latter except the few which it was essential to keep at hand, and this was done by Captain Jephson during the afternoon.
By evening the village had been fairly thoroughly pounded. C Company headquarters had received a direct hit, B Company had been shelled almost unceasingly since the previous evening, and D and C Companies had received almost an equal share of unpleasantness. Consequently, little or no rest had been enjoyed after the prolonged fatigue of the withdrawals up to date. Second Lieutenants Bright and Pulteney had been wounded, about nine other ranks had been killed and fifteen or twenty wounded by evening.
During the day alarming reports had come in from the 8th Royal Warwicks on the right front to the effect that German infantry were across the Escaut and that two companies of them had been seen near Warnaffles Farm, i.e., between the 43rd and the 1st/7th Royal Warwicks. Reconnaissance by Captain Jephson with a section of carriers, however, failed to find any trace of the enemy.
After dark on this day orders were received for the Regiment to go at once to Lesdain, where it was to report to and come under the command of the 145th Infantry Brigade. An officer was to be sent ahead immediately to report to that headquarters. Lesdain lies some four miles south of St. Maur.
Should we ever get any rest again?
Major Colvill left immediately in the Humber, being fortunate enough to traverse the village and exits to the south without any shells falling along the route.
On arrival at headquarters, 145th Brigade, Major Colvill was shown a billeting area by the staff captain and returned to meet the Regiment marching in. Their exodus from St. Maur of evil memory was marked by a salvo of shells which hit C Company (with whom was the Colonel) just as they had moved off, causing three or four casualties.
No sooner had companies been shown into their billets and sunk down to sleep than orders were received for the Regiment to carry out an immediate counter-attack through Jollain Merlin towards Hollain with the object of clearing up a situation where the Germans were reported to have crossed the Escaut and to have occupied houses on the west bank.
21st May.—Time was short. The attack was to be put in at first light. Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld went forward to get in touch with the 2nd Glosters, through whom the Regiment was to attack, whilst Major Colvill, after rousing companies and explaining the operation briefly, went thence to headquarters, 145th Brigade, with Captain Godman of B Company for further details.
The attack was to be carried out by B Company with the carrier platoon: B Company's left to advance along the line of a stream running westward from Hollain past two small woods; C and D Companies to move to some scrub south-west of Haut Arbre, where me 2nd Glosters' headquarters were, with a view to forming a defensive flank to the north-east should the attack fail.
On return from headquarters, 145th Infantry Brigade, companies to take part in the operation were all ready and moved off just as it was getting light: B Company and the carriers (the latter led by Captain Blyth in the absence of Captain Jephson, who was combining the work of carrier commander and mechanical transport officer and was at the moment bringing on transport from the Bois de Pluoy), under Captain Godman, to the northward of Lesdain; and C and D Companies (Major Richards and Captain Edmunds), under Major Colvill, along the track north-east from Lesdain towards Haut Arbre.
On arrival at the area which had been indicated touch was made with Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld at headquarters, 2nd Glosters, as arranged, and very shortly afterwards the operation was cancelled—a contingency which had been hinted at by Colonel Somerset, commanding the 145th Brigade, the situation having been found to be less serious than had at first been supposed.
Companies returned to billets wearier than ever.
As soon as everyone was comfortably down to it again and Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld had gone off to brigade in search of information about the probable future role of the 43rd, Major Colvill was again summoned urgently to brigade and given instructions for yet another counter-attack.
There was no time to be lost. Objective: the Bois de Lannoy; two companies to clear the wood of Germans, one company to fight its way through the western edge of Hollain and then northward with its right on the railway to form a defensive flank facing east about the bend in the railway just south-east of the Bois de Lannoy. Divisional artillery was to fire concentrations on the Bois de Lannoy until 1330 hrs. The Regiment was to get on with it at once and meet Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld as it advanced north-east along the track Lesdain—Haut Arbre. Colonel Somerset's instructions were brief and to the point. Few moments were wasted and after calling to mind the success of the 52nd in driving the Germans out of woods at Nonneboschen he left it at that.
Company commanders and H.Q. Company platoon commanders were hastily collected and orders issued for the attack by Major Colvill. In spite of the fatigue which everyone was feeling the Regiment was ready to move off in a surprisingly short space of time. B Company was to tackle Hollain and the railway, whilst C, supported by fire from D and the carrier platoon, was to clear the wood; the mortar platoon was to cooperate by firing high explosive into the south-east rectangle of the Bois de Lannoy during the advance of C from the start line —the road east and west through Hollain station and the Ferme des Bres. C Company, having gained the wood, was to sweep through to the north whilst D, having covered C into the wood from about Le Tombeau, was to go through from west to east. Carriers were to rake the wood with their Brens from ground positions about the copse north-west of Le Tombeau.
As companies were preparing to move whilst orders were being given out, within a very few minutes of their conclusion the Regiment moved off through Lesdain, over which was circling rather ominously a Henschel reconnaissance aircraft.
Companies were to deploy successively as they reached the open and shell-pocked ground north-east of Lesdain. B Company, leading, did so without interruption and C, following, was clear of the track except for its rear platoon when a salvo of shells crashed down and killed Second Lieutenant Ingham and Serjeant Grey. A few more shells fell on the open ground, but the remaining companies deployed and the advance continued to the track south-west from Haut Arbre, where a halt was made upon meeting Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld, with the latest information from headquarters, 144th Brigade, in whose area the objective lay and under whose command the Regiment was to pass.
The advance was resumed some ten minutes later, the carrier platoon moving off northwards through Jollain Merlin and thence across open ground to its fire positions north of Le Tombeau. Regimental headquarters were to be established in the orchard of the farm on the north side of the east-and-west road: south of "e" in Le Tombeau. On approaching the stream, shells began to fall about the western edge of Hollain and in the small wood on the banks of the stream, but caused no casualties, and headquarters were established in the orchard at about 1400 hrs.
The carriers were in action and D Company moved forward and took up fire positions covering the south-west face of the Bois de Lannoy. C Company moved boldly across the open stretch of ground towards the south face, and P.S.M. Rowland, from positions a little to the east of Regimental headquarters, pumped his mortar bombs into the eastern rectangle. Our artillery had continued to shell the wood up to this moment.
There ensued some anxious moments of waiting whilst C Company advanced steadily towards the bois and passed in at 1425 hrs. practically unopposed.
Meanwhile, heavy small-arms fire and the sound of bursting shells came from the railway, telling of B Company's progress, to be followed by reports from Captain Godman that his company had reached the bend in the railway and had suffered some casualties, including Second Lieutenant G. R. Duncan killed by a rifle bullet through the head.
Progress was becoming increasingly difficult. The enemy was apparently in the south-east corner of the Bois de Lannoy as well as in the buildings and posts between that point and the level-crossing to the south-east. Small-arms ammunition was running out and shells were being directed on to them by light signals from enemy posts. A further supply of small-arms ammunition was arranged and B Company continued to fight stubbornly to clear the area up to the level-crossing.
As C Company disappeared into the wood British infantry could be seen passing to the northward of Merlin and attacking south-east towards the bois. These turned out to be the Cameron Highlanders from the 2nd Division, and their right subsequently joined hands with D Company, which had passed through the bois in rear of C at Chateau de Lannoy.
News from C and D Companies was scarce for the next hour. The wood was large and very thick. Soon the enemy began to shell it viciously with medium artillery. However, Major Richards reported that he had reached the northern edge and the ride running north-west and south-east west of the chateau and that there appeared to be few if any Germans in the western part of the bois.
During the afternoon Major Conant, who had been missing since the withdrawal across the Brussels Canal, but who had rejoined that morning, led back a party of D Company, which had been shelled out of the bois, to rejoin their company. Upon arrival he found part of D Company engaged with some Germans near the south-east corner of the bois. Having located a post containing about fifteen Germans, he quickly rushed it with the help of a mixed party of 43rd and Cameron Highlanders, with Major Richards and Captain Edmunds. Eleven prisoners were taken, most of whom had been wounded.
Major Conant's great courage and dash disposed of the last of the opposition to B Company's advance up the railway and completed the task set the 43rd.
The south-east rectangle continued to be an unhealthy area during the evening owing to shell fire. There were also some odd Germans still in it in addition to the dead ones. B Company was also persistently shelled.
Whilst the operation had been in progress, the village of Hollain had been held by the 2nd Royal Warwicks of the 144th Brigade. The Germans hated Hollain and had been doing their best with 5.9's to smash it up. Consequently, the news which came during the evening that the 43rd was to relieve the 2nd Royal Warwicks in Hollain that night was coldly received. A close analysis of this account will reveal that the men had had no rest since the night of the 13th/14th May, and many of them little since the 10th May. It was now the 20th/21st.( According to Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld's account, this should be the 22nd/23rd May). They had also, most of them, covered about sixty miles on their flat feet. During the early hours of darkness a party of stragglers from the earlier withdrawals, including most of A Company, marched up from B Echelon and reported at Regimental headquarters. The quartermaster (Lieutenant Warnock) also arrived with cooked meals which were distributed as far as possible.
At Regimental headquarters Lance-Corporal Bailey, the commanding officer's bugler, with customary resource, inaugurated a large stew-pot in the kitchen of the farm, into which went ducks, chickens, vegetables and potatoes, so that all comers were able to dip in and enjoy some hot food.
Shells were still crashing into Hollain and every now and then arriving unpleasantly close to headquarters farm, now uncomfortably crowded with our own wounded, wounded prisoners, of whom there were about half a dozen, and men arriving from B Echelon. Upon taking over the front from the 2nd Royal Warwicks the 43rd was disposed as follows:
B Company, with D, held from the south-east corner of the Bois de Lannoy with the 2nd Division on its left to inclusive the railway station in Hollain, with posts just east of the main road north and south; C Company astride the stream and watching the entrances to the village from across the Escaut;
A Company on the right with posts right down on the bank of the Escaut and one platoon south-west of the church in the neighbourhood of the school to give a little depth and to cover the right flank; the mortar platoon in action just south-east of the church; carriers in reserve at former Regimental headquarters in the cellars of a house just east of the level-crossing by "t" in Fort Debout.
The relief of the 2nd Royal Warwicks was completed in the early hours of the 22nd May, accompanied by spasmodic shelling all over the village.
22nd May.—Some shelling at intervals throughout the day. The village by this tune had been thoroughly smashed. Some derelict vehicles were examined and Captain Hill, the signal officer, undeterred by the unhealthiness of the streets, carried out some very profitable foraging expeditions, returning with supplies of food which were very welcome.
Captain Jephson patrolled the open ground south of the Bois de Lannoy with a carrier and found the bodies of some thirty-five Germans in one comparatively small area. There were also some British dead of other regiments from the encounter during which the Germans had crossed the Escaut on the day preceding the counter-attack. There were many more dead in the south-east rectangle.
The body of Second Lieutenant Duncan was also recovered and buried by the padre in the orchard of what had been Regimental headquarters during the 21st. The burial was carried out with assistance from the quartermaster during the night of the 22nd/23rd.
Some casualties occurred during the day from shelling; but there was no sign of enemy on the west bank of the Escaut. B Company again suffered from intermittent shelling and company headquarters was hit.
As evening drew on the Germans started a methodical bombardment. Salvoes of 5.9's poured into the village for some three hours. One of A Company's forward posts received a direct hit which killed five men. The mortar platoon ammunition dump was hit and the smoke bombs set on fire, creating a pall of smoke over the area.
The doctor had a busy evening at his aid post in a factory a few hundred yards west of Regimental headquarters.
Meanwhile, orders had been received that a further withdrawal was to take place during the night across the French frontier, where the Regiment was to take up a sector of the sketchy frontier defences from exclusive Le Cul de Four to inclusive the crossing over the anti-tank ditch at La Bourgie Farm. Battalions were to organize their own check lines and to be clear of the Escaut Line by 0300 hrs. on the 23rd May. Normal activity was to be maintained up to the hour of withdrawal.
Orders were sent out to companies soon after dark and a check line for the Regiment was chosen along the line of road and track running north-west and south-east through Haut Arbre on which the carrier platoon was to cover the withdrawal of companies through Lesdain.
A night of considerable strain for everybody ensued. The shelling died away at about 2200 hrs., but frequent bursts of light machine-gun and rifle fire from forward posts continued; and reports, some accurate and others born of darkness and uncertainty hi the very lightly held positions, began to come in.
To the south and apparently about a thousand yards away a sound of frantic small-arms fire could be heard, together with explosions from bursting bombs. This did not contribute to the peace of mind of those of us in Hollain. However, the noise went on all night with unabated fury until one wondered how the ammunition supply was being maintained. Was this "normal activity" or were the Boche over the river? It seemed improbable that such a furious battle, presumably at close range in the darkness, could rage for hours with apparently no decisive result.
Shortly after midnight white Very lights began to go up to the right rear of Hollain. In this light at one moment figures were seen several hundred yards to the south-west of Regimental headquarters running to and fro. Shouting was heard. Then with a pop and fizzle a white light was fired about two hundred yards to the rear of Regimental headquarters and towards the house. There were no British troops in that direction and, although everyone who passed by from the direction of the aid post was questioned, nobody could explain the light, nor could any trace of anybody be found.
It was a black, dark night and these happenings—the firing to the south, the shouting and mysterious lights—lent colour to the idea that strong enemy patrols might have got through and might be threatening our line of withdrawal through Haut Arbre and Lesdain, so Captain Jephson took a section of carriers cautiously back towards the selected check line, but found nothing.
As the hour for withdrawal approached, anxiety began to be felt for the more severely wounded, of whom there were still some half a dozen at the aid post awaiting ambulances. Arrangements were hastily improvised and mattresses from the houses were rigged up on the doctor's 15-cwt. truck and upon one of the mortar trucks. However, a quarter of an hour before Regimental headquarters were tuned to move off, an ambulance appeared at the Regimental aid post and the last casualties were removed to the advanced dressing station before a start was made.
23rd May.—The withdrawal was again accomplished, in thin mist, without incident of importance, and soon after daylight companies began to cross the frontier anti-tank ditch and to reconnoitre the defence areas. Information was received that the French were to take over during the night of the 23rd/24th, so Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld spent a long day in search of Frenchmen and found them trying to fix details of the relief. Meanwhile, the Germans had not followed up the withdrawal from the Escaut.
One carrier was unfortunately lost whilst crossing the frontier owing to the crossings having been destroyed. Reconnaissance had to be taken of a doubtful ford, in which it sank and had to be blown up.
Upon relief by the French the Regiment was to withdraw to a billeting area at Vert Bois on the main Auchy—Capelle en Pevele road. It seemed as if at last we might get a short rest. A French major of engineers had waved at us a special order of the day by the commander of the division which stated that the division was the first of a great general movement by the Allied armies. We, in ignorance of the true facts, felt that perhaps the tide was about to turn. We know now that the general movement was a damp squib.
That night Major Colvill and Captain Jephson went to B Echelon at Vert Bois via Quenne and arranged close billets in the few farms which constituted Vert Bois. Good barns were found, suitable cover for the vehicles, and an ornate but well-found modern chateau to house the officers.
24th May.—The Regiment marched into Vert Bois by companics soon after dawn and got down to rest, meals, washing and sorting themselves generally. It was a lovely day and, apart from occasional air alarms, all was peace for the moment. This was the first real rest since the 15th May. It lasted precisely until 1300 hrs.
By 1400 hrs. the Regiment was on the move again to the west bank of the Deule Canal, another eighteen miles, under the constant threat of air attack.
It was late that night before companies were billeted and local defence against armoured fighting vehicles provided for. However, it proved the best night's rest up to date. H.Q. Company, in a moated farm about three-quarters of a mile clear of the long village, came off best.
The supply situation had by this time become acute and instructions were received that troops must live on the country. The quartermaster and Captain Blyth, having hurriedly collected some butchers, made short work of a number of pigs at H.Q. Company's farm with the warm approval of the owner, who was in the process of evacuating his home.
Although a certain amount of bombing was carried out in the neighbourhood during our stay, we escaped direct attention.
25th May.—Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld left during the morning to assume command of the 143rd Infantry Brigade vice Brigadier Muirhead, who was to take over a mixed force. He returned about an hour later, however, the arrangements having been cancelled.
Shortly afterwards, at about midday, orders were received to move to an embussing point and to concentrate in an area some thousand yards south-west of Quesnoy-sur-Deule. Major Colvill was to report to brigade headquarters and go thence immediately to headquarters, II Corps, hi Armentieres.
On arrival in Armentieres, headquarters of the II Corps was hi the act of leaving. It had been subjected to heavy bombing during the night and again during the forenoon, and the town had been badly knocked about. Major Colvill interviewed Brigadier Ritchie, B.G.S., who explained the general situation as far as possible. It was not very rosy: the Belgian Army had been attacked to the north and its whereabouts and condition were merely a matter for conjecture. However, the subject of immediate concern was that the 143rd Infantry Brigade was to move north and come under the 4th Division, which was holding the south bank of the River Lys from about Menin westward towards Comines, with headquarters in Linselles.
Having obtained a supply of maps, Major Colvill made contact with Brigadier Muirhead at Quesnoy-sur-Deule.
Meanwhile, the Regiment had got under way and on arrival at its embussing point was spotted and bombed from a low altitude by enemy aircraft. Fortunately no casualties were sustained either from bombs or from machine-gun fire which followed.
In due course it arrived and companies were dispersed along a road circuit in their allotted area whilst Regimental headquarters was established in a farm beside the road Croix au Bois —Quesnoy. Changes of plan were being made meanwhile. The 143rd Brigade was to take over positions on the west bank of the Ypres—Comines Canal and come under the 5th Division, which was extending northwards towards Ypres. The 43rd was to take over from the junction of the Ypres—Comines Canal with the River Lys at Comines to inclusive the crossing at Houthem, a front of some three thousand yards, temporarily held by machine guns of the 4th Gordons.
Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld spent the remaining hours of daylight on reconnaissance with Brigadier Muirhead, and returned shortly after dark to issue orders for the move to and occupation of the canal line during the night.
The Regiment was to be dispersed as follows on the canal:
Right.—D Company: from inclusive canal and river junction at Comines to inclusive the road Comines—Warneton.
Centre.—A Company: exclusive the road to exclusive locks south of Houthem.
Left.—C Company: inclusive Houthem bridge to the locks.
Reserve.—B Company and the carrier platoon: T-roads east of Garde Dieu.
Regimental headquarters: in a large farm just west of crossroads south of Gapaard.
The ensuing move was delayed and hampered at the start owing to a misunderstanding concerning parking of vehicles which resulted in those belonging to various companies getting mixed. It was a very dark night, which added to the difficulty of getting everybody on the move. Aircraft were circling over the whole district and dropping parachute flares, but the convoys eventually moved and, following the main road along the west bank of the Deule Canal, passed through Warneton and with the coming of daylight companies were able to take up some sort of defences covered by the empty and grass-grown canal. It was not a formidable obstacle.
A traffic jam of vast proportions occurred during the night on the main Warneton—Ypres road at the cross-roads just east of selected Regimental headquarters. Endless streams of mechanical transport were moving south towards Warneton. French horsed columns were trying to move up from the south and turn westward to Messines. At the same time, other convoys of mechanical transport were coming in from the east, some heading for Messines and some for Warneton.
There were no nice traffic control police, so Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld, who had preceded the Regiment, was obliged to sort it out personally.
26th May.—Messines, two thousand yards to the west of Regimental headquarters, was heavily bombed. Early in the day forward companies began to be shelled, particularly C Company about Houthem.
Reports began to come in of parties of enemy to be seen approaching the canal between Tenbrielen and Houthem and at Korentje. Counter-preparation fire by our artillery was directed upon cross-roads and villages in the area.
As Regimental headquarters were too far back in view of the modifications of the original dispositions to be carried out during the night of the 26th/27th, they moved during the day to Mai Cornet, where they were established hi a farm with good cellars just south of the main road and at the western extremity of the houses forming the main street of the village.
The modification of dispositions to be undertaken after dark was as follows:
The 43rd was to close in on its right and occupy a sector from inclusive the canal and river junction to a point about opposite Korentje. The 8th Royal Warwicks were to take over the front held by C Company and the left of A Company.
The 43rd was accordingly to be disposed as follows upon relief by the 8th Royal Warwicks:
D Company: as originally ordered.
A Company: from inclusive locks just north of Comines— Warneton road to a point of junction with B Company north of the railway crossing.
B Company: to move up to canal and establish posts between A Company and 8th Royal Warwicks.
C Company: to occupy an area west of Mai Cornet and south-west of the brook which runs north-west from Comines, to provide a little depth to the very thin red line of posts in the canal defence.
Second Lieutenant Colvile's platoon of the 143rd Brigade anti-tank company with its 25-mm. guns was to be disposed covering the road from Comines from positions in Mai Cornet.
A forward observation officer from the field regiment in support arrived at Regimental headquarters.
Signals laid line to A and D Companies' headquarters.
Mortar platoon remained in reserve at Regimental headquarters' farm.
The afternoon produced more reports of enemy to be seen on the east bank and counter-preparation targets were engaged by our artillery. Some machine-gun fire came from the direction of Korentje and there was some shelling.
During the first half of the night companies adjusted their dispositions. This was a tricky business, as the enemy was close up to the canal and it was not without exchanges of small-arms fire that B Company established itself.
27th May.—At about 0200 hrs. Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld set out to visit the forward companies, accompanied by Major Colvill, Lance-Corporal Bailey, his bugler, and two men of the intelligence section. The latter had previously located the headquarters of A and B Companies, which were within a few hundred yards of one another, but they had done so in daylight and were none too confident of being able to do so straight away in the darkness. However, the party moved out cautiously across the stream, which runs at the bottom of a thickly wooded and overgrown glen, and up on to the open ground between the stream and canal towards a dark mass which indicated a small farmhouse standing in a hedged-in garden. This was in the area where B Company should have been if our direction had been correct. It should be realized that in so far as details of the landscape and minor roads and tracks were concerned the map was of no use.
As the party was passing the garden gate heading for where B Company headquarters were thought to be, a slight rustle came from inside the hedge. The sound was unmistakable, but after a pause it was not repeated and the party continued. A few minutes later the party came back past the garden to check direction. Again there was a rustle and the party spread out whilst Lance-Corporal Bailey, seeking to verify the presence of a cow perhaps, cautiously approached the gateway. Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld, realizing the possibility of there being some of B Company in the area, called out, "Don't shoot, Bailey." There was a short pause and then a burst of Bren and rifle fire from the gate. Although fire was opened at from five to ten yards, the darkness and the fact that the party was spaced out saved it from complete disaster. Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld, however, received a bullet through his left arm above the elbow.
The fire ceased abruptly. Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld was escorted back to the Regimental aid post by Lance-Corporal Bailey. Major Colvill, with the two guides, having verified the ambush as a section belonging to a platoon of B Company which had just moved up, found Captain Godman and his headquarters a little farther down the track.
The situation was somewhat nervy for the forward platoons, and indeed for all that night. The enemy was on the far bank of the canal—which was dry and only about ten feet deep. There was, of course, no wire and there were no defences. Posts were very isolated. Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld was evacuated about dawn and Major Colvill assumed command. Day broke fairly quietly, but as time went on shelling and small-arms fire began to be heard from in front. Regimental headquarters began to be shelled and machine-gun fire to pass overhead.
Regimental staff were allotted to specific cellars and slit trenches and kept under cover.
Lines to companies were still intact and Major Conant rang up to inquire about the movements of the 8th Royal Warwicks. Captain Godman also spoke. He said that the Germans were crossing the canal apparently unopposed on his left. Inquiry from Captain Edmunds elicited the reply that D Company was all right.
At this juncture an officer of the 4th Gordons, in command of a section of Vickers guns in Mai Cornet, who had come under the command of the 43rd the previous afternoon, irrupted into Regimental headquarters with the news that his guns had been surrounded by Germans, all armed with tommy-guns, and his section was in the process of being exterminated. No sounds of extermination could be heard, so Captain Jephson, with six men, went to make sure. He found no Germans, no tommy-guns, and no extermination. The guns were directed to a position which had been chosen the night before, from which they could carry out the task which had been agreed upon. In fact, they never carried it out, but that is another story.
Meanwhile, the noise of artillery and machine-gun fire was increasing. The telephone to A and B Companies was dead. D Company rang up to report that Germans had penetrated the right of A Company and were advancing up the valley of the stream from Comines, i.e., between Regimental headquarters and B Company.
C Company could not be found. Although it was in position, runners in the darkness and open country had been unable to find it. The intelligence section was still looking for it.
Regimental headquarters were being sniped and shelled. With enemy coming up the stream from Comines it looked as if in a very few minutes Regimental headquarters would be attacked from the northern flank and placed in a very precarious position.
A party was hastily organized under Captain Jephson consisting of the intelligence section, servants, orderlies, etc. This party, comprising C.S.M. Neal and some of the carrier platoon, dashed across the Comines road and took up positions along the railway covering the southern edge of the valley.
The signallers, with an anti-tank rifle, were disposed by Captain Hill for the defence of headquarters' farm, and C.S.M. Rowland, with admirable speed, got the mortars into action and was dropping high-explosive bombs into the covered approach offered by the valley of the stream.
The remaining staff with the commanding officer, adjutant (Captain Warner) and the forward observation officer moved out into a field some two hundred yards south of the farm and, taking cover in a fold in the ground, watched the right flank.
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