1st BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION AUGUST 1944 TO FEBRUARY 1945
THE BATTALION REFORMS - LINES OF COMMUNICATION TROOPS - BRUSSELS GARRISON BATTALION
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL4 1944-1945
The remnants of the battalion moved to "Planet" on the 28th August 1944 where is came under the command of No. 4 Line of Communications Sub-Area. The Battalion now had to be prepared to take in drafts. The battalion organised itself ready to receive the drafts, S Company was wound up and the remnants absorbed into H.Q. Company.
On the 31st August the first batch of reinforcements arrived— 182 of them in all. It had been previously arranged with No. 36 Reinforcement Holding Unit that they would march to our headquarters, a total distance of about six miles. Statistics prove that 180 men marching in threes at an average rate of 3 m.p.h. would pass any given point in one and a half minutes. After ten minutes this depressing band of men were still filing past.
There were a few who marched in smartly—the leading three, one of whom turned out to be the conducting N.C.O., who later returned to the reinforcement holding unit. The rest literally limped in, including a few who were actually being supported. It was noticed also as they crawled past that each one seemed to be from a different regiment and that all were wearing the most peculiar hats at the oddest angles.
After the initial depression had been overcome, and the commanding officer had welcomed them with some extremely carefully chosen words and had pointed out to them a few of the battalions customs, with particular emphasis on the way to wear the general service cap, the draft was dispersed to companies, and equipped as far as possible from battalion resources.
Accommodation at Planet consisted of one building, for Battalion headquarters, and 160-lb. tents. Each company was allotted a field, and tents were soon springing up everywhere. Some alarm was felt at the prospect of all these categorised men (many of whom were bad bronchial cases) sleeping under canvas, but there was no alternative. Planet itself consisted of only about six small houses altogether.
The commander of No. 101 Beach Sub-Area visited us with the news that his headquarters was going to Caen on the 1st September and that the Battalion was to take over his accommodation and commitments in Port en Bessins.
The advanced party was dispatched at once and all arrangements made, but before the move took place a further draft of 123 soldiers was received. It was much the same as the previous one and took almost as long to arrive. The men were quickly posted to companies and equipped as before just in time to move the following day to Port en Bessins.
Port en Bessins was a typical ‘small Norman fishing port. Normally no doubt it was of little military interest, but for some time now it had been the start of the petrol pipeline which supplied the advancing armies. Tankers came into the harbour and discharged their cargo into large storage tanks, from which the petrol was pumped through the overland pipelines. It was therefore a very definite military objective.
The Royal Navy was in charge of the harbour itself, the various troops in the area were all fully employed on their respective tasks, and it merely meant that the commanding officer was officer commanding troops in the area and was responsible for issuing orders and taking collective action in an emergency. The supply of petrol coming in to the harbour was dwindling rapidly as other ports were opened up, and it soon became obvious that the importance of Port en Bessins to the Army was on the wane.
The stay in Port en Bessins was uneventful. September and October were spent re-forming the Battalion and sorting out the sheep from the goats. Every type of categorised soldier was being sent, and although protests were made that over half of these were unsuitable for outdoor work of any nature the battalion was forced to retain them pending some decision from higher authority. About 40 per cent of all drafts were “bomb-happies.” These cases proved extremely difficult and the Personnel Selection Branch at Reforsec was eventually persuaded to send a psychiatrist to the Battalion and examine these men on the spot, on the understanding that if his report recommended change of employment the men would be posted back to a reinforcement holding unit. There were two excuses for returning unsuitables—one on psychiatric grounds and the other on medical grounds. The latter proved to be rather difficult in the early stages, as Reforsec would only accept an A.D.M.S.’s certificate. After a while, however, as the position got worse Reforsec were persuaded to accept the doctor’s certificate, and on his word the battalion eventually got rid of many more.
Training of the new Battalion was extremely difficult, as quite a large number were excused wearing boots or carrying rifles; 50 per cent. were not allowed to shoot or be anywhere near when anything went “bang,” and of those who were capable of doing drill only a mere handful understood the battalions particular type of drill. The battalion now had men from at least sixty different regiments or corps and it was really hard work making them into “Bucks” men.
Most companies made up their three platoons as follows: No. 1 Platoon: those capable of marching at regimental pace and doing normal training and guards. No. 2 Platoon: those capable of marching five miles slowly. No. 3 Platoon: those excused everything except pay and rations.
Just as the Battalion was beginning to take some sort of shape again a demand was received for a company at full infantry war establishment for duties in Brussels. The battalion did the best it could and dispatched D Company on the 13th September. As its duties would be mainly guarding and acting as defence company to the 21st Army Group main headquarters, several inter-company transfers were made in an effort to reduce the number of unsuitables in D Company.
The remaining days of September were spent in trying to discover the Battalion’s future, a ruling on drafting, a war establishment and a G1098. Companies did what they could, pressing on with individual training, which was the most that could be achieved at that time. R.S.M. Roby took drill periods daily, and worked wonders with the Battalion.
Football was started very quickly and it was found that the categorised men were always capable of playing, whereas marching or any duty crippled them. The battalion was an odd collection, but slowly were getting a new Battalion together and every day brought forth some improvement in one way or another.
Towards the end of September a proposed war establishment for a Lines of Communication battalion was presented. As this affected the 5th King’s and 1st Bucks only, a conference was held at battalion headquarters which was attended by Lieutenant-Colonel Wreford Brown (5th King’s), all company commanders and Major Campbell from headquarters, Lines of Communication. The proposed establishment was discussed from all angles and many suggestions made. It was generally agreed that the idea behind the establishment must be to make each company self-supporting by platoons, as we were likely to be spread far and wide and it would probably be impracticable for Battalion headquarters to control the local administration of each company and even for companies to control platoons.
It was now decided to start the band again, and the bugles in particular. The battalion had lost nearly all its original band members, but had found new talent among the new men. To this end Serjeant Fowler (pioneer serjeant), a stalwart of the pre-war band, was dispatched to England on one of the many escort duties with strict instructions to go to Aylesbury and get as many bugles and band instruments as possible sent out, bringing with him all that he could carry.
Knowing Serjeant Fowler as they did, the officers were quite confident that he would literally bring back the goods and he did. This was an encouraging start, and Corporal Dowie Hood, the battalions best bugler, was put on to training some buglers immediately. Fired by his success, Serjeant Fowler then asked if he could go to Wahagnies to try to locate the old band instruments which had been left behind in 1940. The commanding officer gave him his blessing and dispatched him the following day.
Serjeant Fowler returned on the 3rd October, reported dutifully to the commanding officer and asked him if he would be good enough to visit the car park. Colonel Boehm consented, having little doubt what he would see on arrival, and sure enough there were thirteen of the original instruments, looking slightly tarnished but otherwise quite undamaged.
This was his story. On arrival at Wahagnies he went straight to the house where he had been billeted in 1940 and where the instruments had been left in the adjoining garage. He was immediately recognised by the old lady living there, who, after welcoming him warmly, said: “You’ve come for the instruments, of course.” Fowler said he had and was conducted down to the cellar, where floorboards were ripped up, revealing the precious instruments.
When they had been left in the garage the old lady, her husband and her sister had promised to keep them, and as soon as the Battalion had departed they took all the instruments out of their boxes and hid them under the floorboards in their house. The Germans eventually arrived, saw the empty boxes and demanded the instruments. The old folk denied all knowledge of them and, though ill treated and starved, and charged with collaboration with the British, they refused to divulge their secret until the Germans gave them up as hopeless and left them alone. The instruments had been there, untouched, ever since. The commanding officer wrote a letter of appreciation to the old lady.
On the 16th October the commanding officer and adjutant were summoned to a conference at No. 37 Reinforcement Holding Unit to hear all about the policy which had been laid down. On arrival it was discovered that a policy had been defined in a letter which contained this remarkable paragraph: “As a safeguard against unsuitable postings, the following criteria will be observed. All men will: “(a) Be able to march five miles without falling out. “(b) Be able to stand guard for two hours at a stretch. “(c) Be able to fire their personal weapons with a reasonable chance of hitting at thirty yards.”
Shades of Sir John Moore! That night there was a great storm and tempest which the commanding officer declared was caused by generations of Light Infantrymen turning in their graves.
After a long discussion it was agreed with Reforsec that the battalion would test all the men on the standard laid down in the letter and would return all those who failed to comply to No. 37 Reinforcement Holding Unit and receive in return replacements of the correct standard. Every new draft would then be put through the same test and rejects sent back. By this method, and given time, it was hoped to make the Battalion up with suitable men.
Had this been carried out as planned all would have been well, but scarcely had plans been made for testing all the doubtful men when the reinforcement holding unit telephoned to say they could not accept any men in view of lack of accommodation, but begged the battalion to take 210 men of the correct categories instead. The battalions accommodation problem was already difficult, but they were accepted and agreed that they be sent over on the 20th October.
In view of this sudden influx, it was decided to move B Company to Villiers-sur-Port—just up the road—into some buildings and to start X Company, where all unsuitables were to be assembled. Captain Tait was put in charge of X Company and given a small staff to run it and took over B Company’s area for the purpose.
On the morning of the 20th October B Company moved and the new drafts arrived. These were much better specimens than before and the doctor had to reject only fifteen, who were posted to X Company. After all companies had carried out the necessary suitability tests and prepared lists of candidates for X Company it was found that out of a present total strength of 957 there were 275 unsuitables.
The final decision on the proposed move was then made and the battalion was told after several visits to No. 12 Lines of Communication at Cabourg that it was to move to Brussels by the 27th October. The question of transport arose and thirty nine three tonners were asked for. No. 12 Lines of Communication thought it unlikely that this would be available but promised to do their best. The battalion had to get rid of X Company somehow, as it seemed pointless taking them all the way to Brussels and so it was arranged with No. 37 Reinforcement Holding Unit that they would be left behind and they promised to absorb them as soon as possible.
On the morning of the 26th October Battalion headquarters and A and H.Q. Companies moved off at 0900 hrs according to schedule. Captain Low, our fluent French-speaking officer, went ahead of the column with guides from each company and some large signs to find a staging area. By communicating with the local F.F.I. (Resistance Movement) he found some excellent billets in some large farmhouses at Tilly and at 1700 hrs. the convoy started to arrive. One or two trucks had been lost en route,but they arrived the next morning as if by magic, having staged on their own. The local inhabitants were delighted to see the Battalion and could not do enough for it and a very comfortable night was spent. The following morning the column moved on again and after an uneventful journey staged at Elouges, near Mons. H.Q. Company was billeted in the local F.F.I. headquarters and A Company in a convent near by. After leaving Elouges the column reached Brussels by 1300 hrs., where it was found that the new home was to be St. Jean Barracks in the Boulevard du Jardin Botanique. Although the place looked forbidding from the outside, it was a relief not to be under canvas and to have exchanged the mud and boredom of Port en Bessins for the whirl and bustle of a large town.
B and C Companies left Port en Bessins on the 27th October and Captain Tait moved X Company over to Villiers-sur-Port as planned. Both companies arrived at St. Jean Barracks at midday on the 29th October. Thus did start five months’ in the role of garrison battalion.
St. Jean Barracks had an enormous block of buildings which ten years before had been used as a mental hospital by the Belgians. Later it had been converted into a barracks and as such had been used by the Germans. It was built roughly in the shape of a hollow square, with a large courtyard in the middle, and contained hundreds of long corridors, each built on exactly the same lines and appearing identical—with the result that it was the easiest thing in the world to get lost. There were three floors altogether and a basement. The whole place was extremely dark and gloomy and in most parts of the building it was essential to have the electric light on most of the day. In the basement it was pitch-dark all day without artificial light. Part of the building was being used as a transit camp and as such was run by the 168th Company, Pioneer Corps. The Battalion occupied the rest and the commanding officer was appointed officer commanding the entire barracks.
D Company now returned and was accommodated in the barracks. The battalion still had to supply a guard for 21st Army Group main headquarters, but it was now a battalion rather than a company responsibility, and could therefore be changed at the battalions discretion.
Drafts were coming in occasionally and the battalion was gradually being made up to strength with correct categories.
On the 27th December the battalion was suddenly ordered to produce a rifle company at full war establishment, plus two sections of armoured cars, to go to Goes in South Beveland, where they would come under No. 4 Special Service Commando. A composite company was organised by choosing the fittest officers and men from A and D Companies, and on the 31st December they moved off. No one was told at the time exactly what their role would be, but it was later discovered that it consisted of holding part of the line under No. 4 Special Service Commando Brigade opposite the Scheldt estuary, with the Germans still entrenched on the opposite island of Schouwen en Duiveland. The composite company remained in that area till the 10th February, when it rejoined at St. Jean Barracks. 1
In the early part of February the commanding officer had talked to the brigadier, Brussels garrison, over the question of commitments, begging to be relieved of some so that it could carry on with training. The immediate result of this was the return of A Company from Holland. The armoured car section which had accompanied A Company returned later towards the end of the month. This helped with duties at the barracks, but was immediately offset by a demand for a platoon to go to Ypres urgently to help run a transit camp for “Goldflake”—the secret operation for transferring Canadian reinforcements from Italy to the 21st Army Group. This task finally required two platoons, and as one platoon of B Company was already committed as defence platoon to headquarters, No. 11 Lines of Communication, at Malines, it was decided to write off B Company completely.
No sooner the battalion settled down and arranged the duties after this reshuffle when the pioneer company which had been attached recently to help was suddenly withdrawn. This brought matters to a head. Then it was that General Surtees, commanding Lines of Communication, paid the battalion a visit. Colonel Boehm lost no time in explaining the difficulties to him, saying we lacked numbers and had had no chance to do any real training. If the battalion could be made up with A1 men and at the same time be relieved of some of the duties it could make a start with a platoon training right away from Brussels and probably later on a whole company. The general took it all very seriously and promised to do something for us immediately.
Two days after the general’s visit, on the 22nd February, a signal was received from Lines of Communication that the battalion was to be made up with A1 men at once. Energetic action had certainly been taken this time and was quickly followed by immediate action on the part of Reforsec, who posted two drafts, one of thirty-five and one of thirty-three on the following day. They were chiefly young soldiers who had come straight from England, but they looked promising material, and it was a real pleasure to see some A1 men after all the categoried drafts in the past.
On the 27th February the whole of B Company, less the platoon at headquarters, No. 11 Lines of Communication, rejoined having completed its task on “Goldflake.”This improved the situation still further and the return of the defence platoon was promised by the 4th March.
Throughout the month the battalion gradually managed to post the last of the unsuitable men and now were nearly up to strength with a proportion of A1’s felt far happier than at any time since the first draft had arrived at Planet. It had taken six months almost to the day to sort the re-formed Battalion. It had turned over more than a thousand men in the process, weeded out the unsuitable men, and now at last, after six months, there was a Battalion capable of carrying out any task likely to be allotted to it. A new spirit had crept in and from this time onward the new Battalion really did begin to assume the Bucks air and pride of Regiment.
Rumours had been current during February that a new organisation, known as T Force, was being formed and that the Battalion might possibly be used for the coming offensive which was known to be in the offing. The 5th King’s, old colleagues of beach group days, had been chosen, as was found out from their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Wreford Brown, on one of his visits to Brussels, and the battalions chances seemed fairly good.
On his recent visit the General had been asked for information but all that could be gleaned was that Lines of Communication wanted to hold on to at least one of its special battalions. Not discouraged by this on the 27th February the battalion was officially informed that it was, in fact, to form one of the T Forces of the 21st Army Group.
The battalion was not sorry to leave Brussels on the 3rd April 1945. It had certainly been an improvement on Port-en-Bessins, but five months had been quite long enough. WThe Battalion had been organised, some training had been carried out and everyone was eager to prove themselves and were now keen to help win the war.
It was therefore with unrestrained joy that the Battalion left St. Jean Barracks after handing over to the 613th Regiment, R.A., and went forward into Holland on its new adventure. 2
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 4: June 1944 - December 1945 Pages 150-165 2. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 4: June 1944 - December 1945 Pages 361-365