Dunkirk - 7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment (1939-40)
Early in August, 1939, it became evident that the annual training would be something more than the routine camp on Salisbury Plain. Previous to moving, companies assembled in their areas. Once in camp at Windmill Hill it was realized that not only were there two Commanding Officers and Adjutants, but that the officer strength was also doubled. It should here be explained that in the spring of 1939 plans to double the Territorial Army were initiated, so that by the time the first conscripts were called up the approximate strength of the Battalion was 55 officers and 1,000 other ranks. Since the swollen strength included so many newcomers, instruction at Windmill Hill camp was on this occasion on elementary lines. Physical training and weapons took the place of the customary schemes, while the new drill in "threes" had also to be mastered.
The difficulties of measuring up to the heavy demands of training new personnel and also launching a new Battalion will be appreciated when it is remembered that at the time both Regular Battalions were abroad, and Regular officers and N.C.Os. were hard to come by.
The process of mobilization was actually completed after the move to Marlborough, the official orders for the mobilization of the Territorial Army being dated 1st September. Simultaneously the 9th Battalion took on its separate identity as the child of its older parent unit, its association being with the northern portions of the 7th Battalion county area. No record of the 7th Battalion at this stage would be complete without reference to Colonel F. M. Tomkinson, D.S.O., who has taken such an active interest always in the affairs of the Battalion. Having commanded in World War I, he became its honorary Colonel.
It was as the 144th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Hamilton) of the 48th (Wessex) Division (Major-General A. F. A. N. Thorne) that the 7th and 8th Battalions the Worcestershire Regiment, with the 5th Battalion the Gloucestershire Regiment, concentrated at Marlborough on 13th September and trained previous to their baptism of fire in France. At the time the Battalion was commanded by Lieut.-Colonel J. Parkes, M.C., D.C.M., who continued to lead through the difficult days in northern France ( Lieut.-Colonel Parkes assumed command from Lieut.-Colonel R. H. Edwards, T.D., on 13th September, the latter officer for medical reasons passing on to the command of the 9th Battalion).
The move to Marlborough went "according to plan." The men' came in on Midland Red buses from their drill-halls to the rendezvous at the junction of the Worcester–Stourport–Kidderminster roads by the "Mitre Oak" inn. The convoy was formed and by 1530 hours the Battalion was debussing in a field north of the town, from where it marched into Marlborough, headed by the Band and Drums. Billets were in lofts, racing stables and garages, while some lucky ones found themselves in licensed houses.
Colonel F. M. Tomkinson, D.S.O.
The Battalion was down again to 30 officers and 350 other ranks, and the incoming drafts to restore the strength to establishment were hardly an even entry. Men from the Royal Berkshire and the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry arrived, many of whom had been transferred against their wishes ; while others were discovered later not to have signed the necessary "General Service" engagement and had to be reposted to their original units. Regular reservists would arrive and almost overnight find themselves with N.C.O. and warrant officer status. In November, however, a very welcome leavening of 120 healthy strong young men from Norton arrived to swell the numbers. They were the initial conscript intake of July and were all over twenty-one years of age. Potential specialists were being crammed with knowledge at the various schools of instruction, but even so teachers of experience were sadly missed. The Battalion signallers in particular were without an expert instructor until the last days in France. It is perhaps natural to slip into the assumption that progress within a keen Battalion proceeded always on an even keel. The difficulties are stressed only to indicate that in the best-ordered units there were constant set-backs and handicaps in the continuous struggle to improve.
Marlborough Downs offered opportunities for more advanced training, and a new Divisional Commander energetically saw that a modern tactical doctrine was taught at a bleak spot called Snap Farm where companies could spend two or three days and nights in the open. It was a bitterly cold winter and 'flu was the first enemy.
Such was the nature of the constant small difficulties which the Battalion Headquarter Staff were called on to overcome, and if it be remembered that small-arms ammunition was in short supply, that there was little web equipment, and that for three months the M.T. consisted of three carriers, five 15-cwt. trucks and an Albion lorry, it is remarkable that a spirit of optimism prevailed; which was perhaps characteristic of the British Army as a whole up to the last days of the drama in 1940.
Throughout this period of suspense the Brigade Commander's sympathetic assistance was always at the disposal of his units, encouraging them to improvisation and the art of making bricks without straw. Quite suddenly the situation then changed and 48 Division became "Priority." Equipment of all sorts poured in, and indeed a message to collect thirty vehicles from Newbury caused some consternation, for most of the ten drivers were on week-end leave. Early in December the significance of the new situation of the Division was left in no doubt when about 400 officers of the Division came in to Marlborough Town Hall and heard their fate from the Chief of the Imperial General Staff himself. The area "Lille–Arras" was indicated on the map, and 48 Division could take some pride in the fact that they were to be the first Territorial formation to reinforce the B.E.F. in the task of strengthening the "Gort" line. In the light of after-events it remains one of the mysteries of history how at that time the doctrine of defence and the infallibility of the Maginot Line were generally accepted.
There followed ten days' combined Christmas and embarkation leave for the whole Division, and by the end of the month, with the exception of some casualties from influenza, the Battalion was assembled and ready for France.
On 29th December the advance party under Captain G. B. Hingley left for Southampton. In error they were sent to Cherbourg, where they picked up a French Liaison Officer, a pleasant little schoolmaster but a very inadequate interpreter. On 15th January the billeting party were joined by the vehicle party in the staging area and there they awaited the arrival of the Battalion.
Group of 'D' Company men of the 7th Battallion
(photo taken at Marlborough in September 1939)
Front: Sgt. Warr, Lt. The earl of Coventry, Capt. A. G. O. Williams, 2/Lt. D. H. Lunt, CSM J. J. White
The Battalion sailed from Southampton on 14th January, 1940, on the Amsterdam, and at the time security measures were sufficient to ensure that officers and men did not know their port of embarkation. The subsequent disembarkation on 16th January at Le Havre was hardly a happy affair. A high snow-storm was on and they were met by guides who seemed to have no idea whatsoever where to lead their companies. They were to lead the Battalion to St. Nicholas, only ten miles from the point of detrainment. In the event Battalion H.Q. spent the night trying to trace its scattered family, and in the meanwhile Company Commanders had wisely settled into billets wherever they could be procured. St. Nicholas had apparently been chosen as a new staging area by H.Q., Le Havre; but nothing was ready and as the Battalion left a representative of the Royal Engineers arrived to find out what structures were necessary.
The Battalion transport which, as noted, crossed four days previously had gone astray. In general, both the fog of war and of nature governed the introduction to French soil.
From the Le Havre area 144 Brigade moved north to the Belgian front. But the 7th Battalion were to leave the Brigade when the latter left Moncheaux for the Saar. Thereafter the Battalion entered 2nd Division.
The move up was made by train, the transport moving separately and rejoining the Battalion at Le Forest on the evening 20th January. Le Forest was a typical French mining village. The Battalion settled into billets in miners' cottages, and at least there was ample coal to combat the intense cold. Indeed, at this early stage casualties incurred were all through sickness, and many were down with colds and coughs.
It was at Le Forest that orders came to remain in the north and replace the 2nd Royal Warwickshires in the 5th Brigade,( The other two units were 2nd Dorsets and 2nd Cameron Highlanders) 2 Division. The prospect of the change was disturbing, for the Battalion had been settling down very happily in 48 Division. The other two units in the Brigade were the 2nd Dorsets and 1st Cameron Highlanders. While the spirit of co-operation with both battalions needed no encouragement and relations with the Dorsets in particular were of the friendliest nature, it was sometimes difficult to resist the impression that, as a Territorial unit within a Regular Brigade, the Battalion was at a disadvantage. The first few days in February were therefore spent in effecting the exchange, and on 5th February the Battalion marched from Le Forest in the morning and covered some eighteen miles to Rumegies by 3.30 in the afternoon. There companies took up defended localities on the Frontier and went to earth in pill-boxes and block-houses as the staunch defenders of, the "Gort" line, in positions which subsequently were never defended. The billets were as good as could be expected, but it was difficult to get a proper bath. Fortunately, Lille was only fifteen miles away, and so once a week the opportunity to clean up in comfort was taken. Musketry and training proceeded on company lines while Battalion Headquarters were busy mustering the various plans of operation set out in connection with the defence of the "Gort" line. One of these, Plan "D," which in the event was to govern subsequent action, involved an advance to the river Dyle, while another amounted only to holding the present position. But they all involved the careful preparation of orders interpreting intentions to the Battalion, and there were some headaches for the Commanding Officer and Adjutant. When not firing their 2-inch mortars or engaged in training, companies worked with R.E. parties on the defences. The apparent sense of static security enabled training to proceed on comparatively normal lines, even Church Parade being regularly observed.
At the end of the month orders came to move to Agny, which was being used by the Brigade as an area for Battalion training combined with rest. Early on the morning of 28th February the Battalion marched by road to Orchies, thence by rail to Arras, finally marching into Agny in the afternoon. The men settled into billets, mostly barns and empty houses, and after a reconnaissance company areas were allotted, and on 2nd March a start was made in earnest with Platoon training.
The process continued on through the month until 24th March, by which time Company Commanders had handled their platoons and Battalion schemes had rounded off the period. There were naturally many mistakes, inevitable in a Territorial battalion with few officers who had more than six months' service. But the spirit and will to learn were there, facts which sometimes appeared to pass unrecognized by higher authority in the day-to-day supervision of training. A brief diversion from serious training was enjoyed when organized parties managed to visit the Memorial and preserved trench system at Vimy Ridge. By 24th March the men were fit and thought nothing of covering twenty miles in a day over open fields. There followed Brigade and Divisional Exercises from 25th to 27th March, and on 1st April the Battalion returned to Rumegies to put in a few days practising the occupation of the "Gort" line. More precisely, the three days 1st to 3rd April were occupied with the 1st Corps manning an exercise in which the Battalion again occupied the Rumegies sector based on three block-houses, with two companies forward, one in support and one in the Brigade Reserve line at Sarneon. Brigades retired and recaptured ground, prisoners were taken and patrols energetically assimilated conditions which were shortly to prove so far removed from the final swift reality. This was followed on 3rd April by a move of the Brigade by M.T. to Pas-en-Artois in the Doullens area for Brigade training. After the flat country round Rumegies, the hills, valleys and woods were a pleasant contrast, and visits to Doullens and Amiens were welcome relaxation. But the change of scenery was not enjoyed for long, for on 9th April the Germans invaded Norway, and early the following morning the Brigade returned to Rumegies. There followed a brief period of doubt and rumour with preparations to move at short notice, followed by counter-orders and the opening of leave interspersed with some furious rewiring, burying cable lines and digging anti-tank ditches. It was surely an indication of the measure of our innocence that on 10th May, when Germany invaded the Low Countries, the Brigadier (Brigadier G. I. Gartlan, D.S.O., M.C.) was on leave, while the Commanding Officer had returned from leave only a few days previously.
Plan "D" which was now put into operation allowed for a movement forward, and accordingly at midnight (11/12) the Battalion set out, crossing the Belgian frontier at Howardries. 4 and 6 Brigades were to hold the line of the River Dyle with 5 Brigade in reserve, the Battalion digging in behind the river just north of Genval. Before moving, a Brigade dump of all surplus kit and clothing was formed which, in the event, was never seen again. It included the Battalion drums, and years later these were returned to the local Civil Affairs Detachment by Monsieur Gaston Debuchy of Ennevilin, Nord. This gentleman took care of the drums during the German occupation at considerable personal risk, and the Regiment owe him a great debt of gratitude. The drums were at first sent to the Coldstream Guards, Civil affairs mistaking the badge for that of the Coldstream. One of the drums is now in the Regimental Museum.
In their short-lived optimism the Belgians showered hospitality on our men as they moved through the villages, and it was pleasant to be offered free beer and wine after the extravagant prices demanded in France. By 14th May refugees were streaming back from the forward areas, and the face of the cheerful countryside was within a few hours darkened with human tragedy. So far as the 7th Worcestershire were concerned they had sustained only one casualty (Private Gilbert, "C" Company, killed by a bomb in La Hulpe) and morale was high. Typical of the prevailing spirit was the successful effort of an officer returning from leave to evade orders at the Base and make the journey up by a French taxi (Captain J. W. Tomkinson).
Lieut. The Earl of Coventry and Captain D. B. Dykes
(Earl of Coventry was killed only 2 weeks later on the 27th May 1940, age 39)
The position on the River Dyle seemed strong and it was with reluctance that orders were received to withdraw. On 15th May the Battalion were ordered to occupy the line L'Argent–Le Grand Etaing, where a Belgian anti-tank obstacle provided a framework for defence. The move was completed successfully during the night 15/16 May.
Route taken by the 7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment
In the meanwhile 5 Brigade had orders to form a defensive flank on the line Hannonsart–Genval, conforming to a general defensive position occupied by Division. The orders provided for all three battalions forward, with 7th Worcestershire on the left, the Dorsets in the centre and Camerons on the right. The Brigade was involved in these moves when at 1600 hours on 16th May a warning order was received indicating that the B.E.F. were to withdraw that night to the line of the River Dendre, 5 Brigade acting as rear-guard to 2 Division, with the 1st Battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry coming under command, the withdrawal being covered by 4/7 Dragoon Guards.
Accordingly the Battalion with the Dorsets withdrew to the line of the River Dyle, while the other two Battalions moved farther back into the Forest de Soignies to hold the Corps check line. At 0100 hours on 17th May the withdrawal of 7th Worcestershire and 2nd Dorsets was carried out over the concrete road bridge at La Hulpe and back into the Forest de Soignies, the sappers blowing the bridge as the last platoon was over. By 0400 hours on 17th May the Battalion was in scattered positions in the thick forest, and at 0900 hours they were on the move again to Grammourt, the Corps check line having been abandoned after 4 and 6 Brigades had passed through.
For the 7th Worcestershire the next ten days represented that same vague nightmare and confusion which was the experience of every battalion of the British Army in the retreat to Dunkirk. It was a dismal period of frustration in that so soon as opportunities occurred to stand and fight the enemy, the flanks were yielding and orders to break off an engagement and withdraw would be received. The confusion which appeared only too evident to Company Commanders and the Battalion Headquarters staff was but a mirror of what was happening higher up the chain of command. Thus the Brigade billeting area was changed while units were on the move and there was no chance of letting them know, with the result that, tired of changes and with lack of sleep, units did not finally find their areas until late into the night.
At Grammourt the whole Battalion were grateful for the use of a friendly monastery, and the monks put their kitchens at the disposal of the troops. At 0130 hours on 18th May the retreat continued. The orders were to march to Tournai, 2 Division having now been ordered to withdraw to the line of the River Escaut. The Battalion set out on its feet but was later able to pick up lorries. On arrival at Tournai order and counter-order to occupy alternative positions followed in quick succession. Eventually a position in some factories by the River Escault was occupied, only to be followed on 20th May by the order to make for Guignies. The chaos on the roads was now indescribable. Pitiful hordes of refugees added to the congestion, while the enemy artillery took its toll. The Battalion struck across country to Guignies in artillery formation, but even so were caught by shell fire and lost two officers and thirty-one men killed and wounded.
That night orders were received to push on to Wez-Velvain, where a pleasant surprise awaited the Battalion in that they were to relieve 8th Worcestershire in 144 Brigade. The Brigade War Diary explains the situation by noting that on the night 20th May, 5 Brigade were placed under 48 Division, adding that orders continued to come in from 2 Division! Such a brief encounter with a sister battalion and with old friends at Brigade Headquarters was a welcome interlude in the relentless conditions of mounting casualties and continuous withdrawal. It was at Wez-Velvain that the Battalion lost their indefatigable Medical Officer, Lieut. R. K. Pilcher, M.C., who was badly wounded in the arm and shoulder.
On 22nd May a move on to Bruyelles was ordered. The move could only be made at night, and when dawn broke the following day the Battalion was in a difficult position with "B" Company isolated in front of Amtoing in the sector held by the Camerons. Somehow the following night the Battalion was extricated, and the next day the move brought the Brigade back to the "Gott" line in the vicinity of Mouchin. Had it been possible to strike the old Rumegies sector it would considerably have simplified the immediate tactical problem. As it was, valuable time was taken up in the necessary reconnaissance, while the unpredictable movements of elements of the retreating French Army further confused the issue.
The retreat continued the following night, first by march route and later by M.T. The route lay through Sedin into the La Bassee district, where billets were taken up in scattered farmhouses in the rear of Givenchy. The transport was doing heroic work, for it was no easy matter to line up vehicles in the dark in their correct order on the road and get them away in the right place and at the right time.
From billets a position forward of Givenchy was occupied along the bank of the La Bassee canal from the bridge over the canal in front of Givenchy on the right to some lock gates two and a half miles away on the left. "B" Company was now so weak that the Commanding Officer decided to keep its two remaining platoons under his direct control, with "D," "A" and "C" Companies up. On the right "D" Company under Captain J. Tomkinson was in touch with the Dorsets. But on the left and in the centre "C" and "A" Company positions remained obscure, though "C" Company were in touch with the Camerons. It was in attempting to trace "A" Company that the Commanding Officer's truck ran into machine-gun fire and his party had to jump for it and make for the ditch by the road. The Commanding Officer escaped injury, but the three officers with him received wounds and injuries.
It was clear that the Germans had penetrated "C" and "A" Company positions, and an attempted counter-attack by the two platoons of "B" Company could make no progress. "A" Company had in fact been overwhelmed. Thus dusk fell on 25th May with the Battalion in a very precarious and exposed position. Tank support which was promised never materialized. Instead the enemy tanks appeared and opened up on company positions with H.E. and incendiary shell. By now heavy casualties had been sustained and every available man, including the Orderly Room staff, was in position. Six of the ten Bren carriers had been knocked out. Early on the morning of 26th May a message from Captain Tomkinson came in saying that "C" Company was completely surrounded, but that he was hanging on as long as possible, and in this situation a sorely wounded battalion fought on through the following morning. When in the afternoon a message came from the Brigadier to break off the engagement, together with the Dorsets and Camerons, only a skeleton battalion remained to receive orders. The forward companies could only be left to their fate and the remnants of the reserve company and Headquarters were all that were mustered for the final move to Dunkirk. On the night of 28th May, Lavantie was reached. By now the transport had destroyed their trucks and so a small party, consisting of the Commanding Officer, two officers (Lieut. R. H. K. Evers and Lieut. G. P. P. Chesshire) and some 150 other ranks, in answer to a last call from Brigade, made for the north.
Unsuccessful efforts were made to contact Headquarters, 2 Division, and instead advice from 1 Division was forthcoming which amounted to "keep going." The message from Brigade, scribbled hastily across three pages of a small note-book, made no mention of Dunkirk, the rendezvous named being St. Jan sur Bitzen. On reaching the rendezvous, 1 Division H.Q. were able to direct the party on to Dunkirk.
On reaching the suburbs of Dunkirk on the evening of 30th May, the Area Commandant was anxious to get the small party away as soon as possible owing to the food shortage; and the final stage was an anti-climax in which the remnants of 7th Worcestershire on 31st May walked along the sea wall and waited for the first boat to come in. Then with simple formality they stepped aboard and were soon away from the coasts of France.
Later another party under Major T. G. Vale, and one under Captain J. W. Tomkinson with 2nd Dorsets, arrived and embarked. Out of a total of 800, approximately 250 men were killed and wounded and another 150 remained as prisoners, some 400 men finding their way out of Dunkirk.
On 6th June 1940 a small nucleus arrived at Dewsbury, in Yorkshire, and Battalion H.Q. occupied the Yorkshire Penny Bank building, with the remainder in billets near by. On 14th June a large draft of fifteen officers and 210 other ranks arrived, to be followed by one officer and 165 other ranks on 15th June. The 7th Worcestershire was once again a living unit with that core of men who were to fight through to victory in Burma. On 22nd June the whole Battalion moved by bus to Burton Constable, the home of Colonel Chichester-Constable, who was a cousin of Major Nugent Chichester, who was Adjutant of the Battalion from 1936 to 1940. Companies camped under the trees in the park and the kitchen in the house became the battalion cook-house. The officers were lucky to be able to make use of one whole wing of the house for their Mess and quarters.
Captain J. W. Tomkinson
On 29th June Lieut.-Colonel Parkes relinquished command of the Battalion, with which he had shared the fortunes of a vital episode in history, and he handed over command to Lieut.-Colonel T. L. Molloy of the 2nd Dorsets.
The role of the Battalion was now that of the greater proportion of the British Army—namely, the defence of the country from invasion. The records of Firm at the time are so constricted by the demands of the censor, that for once no true picture of the period is to be had from studying the Battalion notes.
7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment men in Leeds, Yorkshire (1940)
On 23rd June the duties of Reserve Battalion in the Brigade were taken over from a battalion of the Border Regiment. Companies took over road-blocks and wiring parties were kept busy in the coastal area. The War Diary quoted an Operation Order covering invasion measures known by the code word "Cromwell." It tells of coastguards ready to fire red flares emitting stars and the ringing of church bells to indicate parachutists.
The Battalion remained in Yorkshire for the remaining months of 1940, moving in January, 1941, to Hull. From February to June, with the Brigade, it was stationed some thirty miles inland at Goole, where the role of 2 Division was that of mobile reserve, the object being to counterattack any force that might fight its way on shore or land by parachute. On 20th August a move was made to Ripon, to be followed by the transfer of the whole Division down to Adlestrop, near Kingham in the Cotswolds. When at Adlestrop khaki drill was issued and topees fitted, suspicions that a trip overseas was impending were confirmed.