Dunkirk - 8th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment (1939-40)

 

During 1938 the 7th and 8th Battalions formed a solid Worcestershire representation in the 144th (T.A.) Brigade. In 1939 the 4th and 6th Battalions of the Gloucestershire Regimens who had completed the Brigade left for reconstitution, the one as a searchlight regiment, the other as a mixed tank battalion.

In August 1939 the 8th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment was at their annual camp at Windmill Hill (Ludgershall), Wiltshire, the Battalion strength was a thousand men. For some weeks the young men of the countryside had been coming forward in a new enthusiasm under the vague threat of events to come. Recruits who had joined since April together with a cadre from the Battalion now formed the new 10th Battalion, which continued with elementary training. Hardly had the Battalion returned from camp when the international crisis came to a head. The 1st September 1939 marked the day of mobilization. For a while training continued on "the home ground." But a move was soon made to the concentration area at Marlborough, where the Battalion settled down for three months prior to embarkation day.

In September 1939, the 144th Brigade concentrated at Marlborough after the annual camp.

During November 1939, Private Horace Arthur Hartwell (age 21), who had recently joined 'A' Company with a draft of Militiamen, died of fatal injuries in an accident caused by the "black out".

Early in the New Year (1940) His Majesty King George VI inspected the Brigade in Savernake Forest; while as an exercise in silent movement under control, the Brigade spent a day rounding up the deer in the forest.

Location of Windmill Hill at Ludgershall, Wiltshire

When the great day came, the difficulty of coping with nature proved more exasperating than any suggestion of enemy interference, and the irritations of the first two days on French soil in a heavy snow-storm have already been stressed.

The 8th Battalion landed at Le Havre on the 16th January 1940, and moved up to a concentration area at Tourville before moving on to Moncheaux, near the Belgian frontier, which was reached three days later. At this time the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) was on the left of the Maginot Line, with a neutral Belgium to its front, and had been out of touch with the enemy for months. Such activity as took place was to be found farther to the south on the Saar front and within the French area. For obvious reasons of a political nature, it had become a matter of policy to hold some British troops in the French sector; and it was in accordance with this policy that, soon after setting into Moncheaux, the 144th Brigade moved south to Lorry-le-Metz in the Saar, which was reached on 22nd March 1940. Thereafter during April the 8th Battalion was constantly on the move. The Saar experience might have been regarded as a continuation of training which had initiated at Marlborough! In spite of the fact that German patrols were from time to time encountered, there were no casualties. The task allotted to the 8th Battalion was to patrol about ten miles in front of the Maginot Line. Under the French, defence had been organized with a Ligne de contacte, supported by a Ligne de soutien some 1,500 yards behind. The set-up was hardly in keeping with the British military education in principles of defence in depth; and had a heavy attack fallen on the area, the enemy could certainly have been quickly through what amounted to a linear system. It was during this period that Sergeant Donald with a patrol captured a Nazi flag (which is now held at the Regimental Museum, Worcester).

Battalion H.Q. were first at Waldeistroff in the Ligne de soutien, with companies near by in Bizing and Halstroff. But Waldeistroff, which was the H.Q. of both battalions in the Ligne de contacte and the Ligne de soutien, was occupied in rotation by the other two battalions of the brigade, 2nd Royal Warwickshires and 5th Gloucestershires, thereby allowing a rest in a third area back in Kedange, which was some fifteen miles behind the Maginot Line. Here the Battalion was directly under French orders, and once again some differences of opinion and method were noticeable in attempting to interpret the local French Commander's views on what constituted an alerte position. The general tendency of the French to accept passing rumours and mild shelling as occasions for movement, order and counter-order did not encourage that confidence which should have been the background to a close liaison.

The countryside was densely wooded in patches. Such as had formerly held crops lay untended, as the civilian population had long since disappeared. The frost of a bitterly cold winter had added to the general barrenness of the landscape. To the left and right of the Brigade sector the ground was held by the French Foreign Legion and some Algerian troops and patrolling was co-ordinated. But it was a queer kind of warfare and of a pattern calculated to mislead young troops as to the true nature of war. As an example of the deceptive calm that enveloped the area, Waldeistroff, which accommodated a mass of French miscellaneous units, was regarded as secure and was not shelled until the last day, when the 8th Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch.

On the 24th April 1940, the 8th Battalion arrived back at Moncheaux with Brigade H.Q. near by at Le Forest. It was to spend another month digging anti-tank defensive positions in this area and carrying out reconnaissances up to the Belgian frontier. The dreadful weather continued into the spring, so that digging became a slow, messy process, and in the event proved subsequently of no avail.

But the war of mud and static defence was abruptly concluded when Germany invaded the Low Countries, and by 14th May 1940 the 8th Battalion was way up at Dan Hoek on the outskirts of Brussels, and for the next fortnight was to experience its first and last taste of grim reality. During that short period it acquitted itself in a manner which indicated that, had the fortunes of war demanded its services on a second occasion, it would have come away with all the honours and more, of which it was to be deprived by the luck of the draw.

Leaving behind many good friends among the civil population of Moncheaux, the 8th Battalion packed up and by daylight on 14th May 1940 was across the Belgian frontier. In looking back on the months in France and Belgium there were few colourful moments on which the mind could focus. But no record would be complete without mention of the episode which, for all its humour, nearly caused an "International situation." The Commanding Officer had managed to evade all restrictions and had successfully brought over four ferrets, presumably to deal with the French rats. It was at Moncheaux that a private soldier detailed to look after the ferrets thought he would test them out in the rabbit copses round the Moncheaux mines. Alas, a French game-keeper was waiting for them over an exit hole and duly confiscated the offending animals. It then needed all the diplomacy of Lieut.-Colonel Johnstone and the H.Q. Staff to negotiate the subsequent hand-over, the French Liaison Officer being the medium through which, at a price, they were eventually returned. The ferrets were last seen scampering away in freedom in a Belgian field.

The 48th Division was moving by Motor Transport (M.T.). The frontier barriers were up and as the columns moved through the Belgian villages they received a wild welcome from the inhabitants. Everywhere at the street corners groups of women and children had gathered to speed them on their way with shouts and cheers.

Up at Dan Hoek the Division came into reserve to the 1st Corps, which was already in action away to the east, and instructions were issued to carry out reconnaissances for three alternative situations. The Second-in-Command (Major S. W. Jones) found that the great "Lion" Memorial marking the battle of Waterloo made as good a viewpoint as any and a long reconnaissance was made. But no sooner was this over and plans formulated than orders were received to reinforce a French formation. The French, however, could not be found, and the only French troops encountered were some columns of Colonial units moving rapidly to the rear in undignified confusion. Finally, after the Brigadier had contacted Divisional H.Q., confirmation was received that that particular plan was no longer operative.

The plan chosen involved a move on to the Bois de Soignes, forward of the field of Waterloo, and accordingly on 16th May 1940 a move was made. The Brigade spent a rather fruitless day entangled in the thick forest. Good roads intersected the forest, but otherwise there was no field of fire. There were some large private houses round which desultory patrolling took place.

For the next few days it was a matter of marching, halting to fight spasmodic rear-guard actions, then on again, with little news coming in to give a picture of how the Division in general and the 8th Worcestershire in particular were fitting into the entangled movements of the B.E.F., the French, the Belgians and the enemy. For the soldier in the ranks it meant marching all night to a full moon, arrival in the early morning, waiting for the task allotted and contact with the enemy. Tentative orders to go would be received late in the evening and by midnight the Battalion would be again on the move. Encounters with the enemy were nearly always of an isolated nature so far as the 8th Battalion was concerned. The bridges were all being blown and there was constant anxiety lest some portion of the Battalion should be caught on the wrong side of a blown bridge.

On 18th May 1940 there should have been a brief rest at Wez-Velvain, where the Battalion came into reserve and harboured for the night in the grounds of the chateau. But that night some enemy mortars ranged on to Battalion H.Q. and there were many casualties, among them a very gallant medical officer, Captain Jones.

Wez Velvain location south of Tournai, Belgium

The Division was now on the line of the River Escaut, and all ranks were heartened by a message from the Divisional Commander to the effect that the 48th Division was now to stand and fight, and there would be no further withdrawal. Accordingly the Battalion moved up to Bruyelles on the Escaut, relieving the 5th Gloucesters in the forward area in a defensive position of two battalions up and one withdrawn.

Throughout 22nd May 1940 the enemy was held. The country was enclosed with low scrub down to the banks of the river, and it was not difficult for the enemy to work forward under cover. Nevertheless only small parties succeeded in crossing and these were mopped up by our patrols. In spite of heavy casualties, the morale of the 144th Brigade stood high, and it was a bitter disappointment when that evening orders came to withdraw over the French frontier. The explanation—though it was not known at the time—proved to be the surrender of the Belgians on the left.

It was not easy to extricate the Brigade in the darkness, but the Brigadier (Brigadier J. M. Hamilton, D.S.O.) handled it superbly without fuss. Standing at a road junction, he watched his weary, disappointed troops march slowly on, many turning to their comrades for support.

Planard was reached on the 23rd May 1940 and French troops were in position on the frontier. But their general attitude to the situation and the numbers of them who were roaming around lost and unarmed was not an encouraging background for speculation on the future. Nor was it possible to remain for long unmoved by the pitiable spectacle of refugees, old people, women and children, who, with their paraphernalia, crowded the roads everywhere and hampered movement.

On 24th May the Battalion staggered into Avelin. They had covered some 200 miles in the last ten days, fighting all the way, and they were reaching the limits of human endurance. The supply system had broken down and there was precious little to eat. At the best low rations could only at moments be supplemented by buying and scrounging in the villages.

At Avelin the Battalion tumbled into motor transport, and few were awake to note Armentieres, the Menin Gate and Ypres as they drove north-west to Beveren.

It is difficult to know to what extent the fighting battalions of the 48th Division could follow the general situation. But the move to the north was an effort to hold the Germans who were pushing up the coast from the south. Though it was known that the French had collapsed, there was yet no talk of evacuation and Dunkirk was still just a name of another French port.

A tribute is here due to the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, the 12th Royal Lancers, who had worked back with the Brigade to Avelin. It was comforting indeed at the end of the long night to march through their road-blocks and find their cars tucked into the hedges ready to help the Battalion in.

Whether or not the decision of Dunkirk had been taken at this stage is hardly relevant to this story. The fact remains that there was news of a German tank formation moving up from the south-west, and from Beveren the 144th Brigade were sent off to meet and hold the threat in order to give the Division and other formations the freedom needed to reach the coast.

On the 26th May 1940 the Brigade was therefore concentrated in and around Wormhoudt. Both Battalion and Brigade H.Qs. were in the chateau. Two companies were in the chateau grounds, the other two being some distance away to the north in touch with the defenders of Bergues. The Warwicks were in position in Wormhoudt village, while the Gloucesters on the left held the main road from Cassel.

On 27th May there were hopes of a quiet day, but the Brigadier explained that there was a difficult time ahead. The job in hand was to save precious hours for others to get to the coast. If the pressure became too great, then a withdrawal of a few miles would be undertaken, another stand would be made, and the process repeated over again.

Later this was interpreted in an order which came in to hold the Wormhoudt position until midnight of the 28th.

And so on the morning of 28th May the Battalion was still in and around the chateau of Wormhoudt. Everyone was in high spirits and the very serious situation elsewhere was fortunately hardly realized.

That night the weather, which had hitherto been so kind, broke in a tremendous thunderstorm, and in the event the drenching rain and darkness may well have imposed a welcome fog of movement over the enemy tanks. In the circumstances the withdrawal was put forward from midnight to 2100 hours.

About a mile from Battalion H.Q. to the north-east, "A" and "D" Companies had organized an all-round defence of the village Wylder. These were left out to protect the right flank of the Brigade while Battalion H.Q. and "C" Company withdrew along the road to Herzele. With them came the survivors of one troop of the 52nd Anti-Tank Regiment (The Worcestershire Yeomanry). This troop alone had accounted for some twenty-six German tanks and had man-handled its guns after its transport had been destroyed. On the way to Herzele, "B" Company, which had held the southern extremities of Wormhoudt, were met swinging along at a good pace, wonderfully fresh and in high spirits.

Only a short halt was called at Herzele, and thence a march was made north-east to Bambecque. It was here throughout 29th May the 8th Battalion was to fight a rearguard action worthy of the finest traditions of the Regiment. Orders were received to hold Bambecque until 2100 hours. "B" Company took up a position north of the River Yser covering the road from Herzele, with "C" Company just west of the village itself. Battalion H.Q. was in the village.

By 1130 hours Captain Farrar had successfully withdrawn "D" Company half a mile to the east on to the road from Bambecque to West Cappel. At Battalion H.Q. the doctor had found time to deliver a French woman successfully of a son and "both were doing well." German tanks were now coming on in large numbers from Wormhoudt in the south-west and Bergues in the north-west.

Tanks would come up first to draw fire and then to break through for the lorried infantry behind. The L.M.Gs. of "A" and "D" Companies were having good shooting, and Private Turton of "D" Company successfully shot up a M.O. party off-loading from a large tank. By 1700 hours an enemy tank attack had closed in on "D" Company H.Q. and set it on fire. Captain Farrar was last seen firing an anti-tank rifle at enemy tanks at close range. By 1800 hours both companies were so badly cut up as to make further resistance impossible, and the survivors, three officers and about sixty other ranks, dribbled into Battalion H.Q. in threes and fours to reorganize.

Meanwhile stragglers from other units were coming in and it was difficult to organize them effectively in support of the defence. By 1730 hours the circle was beginning to close around Bambecque and "B" and "C" Companies were heavily involved. Captain E. W. Berry organized a working party and built a very stout road-block of farm-carts and tractors on the Bambecque road below Battalion H.Q. The same officer had previously had a great shoot round the Wormhoudt market square from a carrier, sending German infantry scuttling like rabbits into the houses.

At about 1800 hours a Liaison Officer from Brigade H.Q. arrived with orders for a withdrawal at 2100 hours, and a route to Bray Dunes, on the coast north-east of Dunkirk, was given. The Adjutant then had to get out marked quarter-inch maps to as many subordinate commanders as could be found, no easy task in view of the fact that the enemy now had every possible route under observation. Various runners volunteered to take out the orders, but none of them got through to their destinations. At last darkness fell and at 2105 hours a start was made thinning out the defenders, who began to wind their way in single file along the road to Rexpoede. The last detachment finally left at about 2200 hours under the command of Captain Berry. But "B" and "C" Companies had suffered grievous loss. "B" Company indeed, which had been widely deployed, fought on until its ammunition was exhausted and then, with the net drawn tightly around it, had no alternative but to surrender. The survivors as they trudged the long miles to Bray Dunes all through the night at least could know that, despite heavy sacrifices, their endurance had ensured the safety of thousands.

The above is all too brief an account of an action in which many moments of individual heroism must remain unsung. A British infantry battalion had fought and held an armoured enemy attacking in overwhelming strength. In doing so, its Commanding Officer, Second-in-Command and Adjutant had set an example of leadership and disregard for personal safety which had quickly become infectious. In such conditions it is invidious to single out individuals for merit where so many contributed to the common heroism of some ten long days of fighting.

The march to Bray Dunes has been summed up as a nightmare. All transport had been destroyed at Bambecque. For many this involved the abandonment of a mass of trinkets, of personal kit collected laboriously over the winter. The Second-in-Command and Adjutant also had the happier task of burning all secret and confidential documents over a kitchen fire.

Route taken by the 8th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment (13th May to 30th May 1940)
The numbers indicate the day in May that the Battalion was at that location.

On either side of the road the dykes were flooded and for miles an interlocked shambles of transport jammed all movement. Here and there an exploded vehicle burning itself out added colour to the confusion. Sometimes the only way round was to take to the water in the dykes. At other moments troops had to climb on to and over the vehicles. At Rexpoede it was hoped to find British troops in position, but the place was a mass of burning hamlets with bewildered villagers adding to the chaos. A few minutes' contact were made with the Brigadier and then on to Bray Dunes. An enormous dump of army vehicles blazing away in some fields was grim evidence of the German domination.

The flooding of the countryside may have handicapped the enemy, but it meant precious little to drink for the troops; and it was good to find the Brigade water-truck within a mile or two of the beach near by one of the few pure water supplies.

On the beach a massive, immaculate military policeman was sorting out arrivals by divisions. As far as the eye could see, thousands of troops—British and French crowded the beach, while at the time only one solitary destroyer and two small merchant ships stood a mile out to sea. Surely, some may have thought, here was no salvation but a death-trap ! Officers and men lay huddled together in the dunes, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. Others were chatting to each other or staring silently out to sea. Here and there an officer or N.C.O. was busy sorting out his particular flock. Hundreds were slowly wandering to and fro searching for their comrades. Confusion there certainly was, but no panic. Discipline was unshaken and gradually the situation was resolving into such order as was possible.

At last a count could be taken, and about a hundred men of the Battalion could be mustered. The tale of losses is simply told when it is remembered that 533 replacements were sent to join in England. On the beach throughout the day, seven men of "C" Company turned up; none, alas, from "B" Company. (see note) Later a total of 149 men boarded the Glen Gower.

Note:
(Captain E. J. Haywood, wrote later: " 'B' Company were cut off and when we withdrew that night we could still hear fighting. We concluded that 'B' Company was still holding out, but there was nothing we could do.")

That day on the beach the Battalion performed its last service for the welfare of its comrades in the B.E.F. It had been evident that there were no orders covering the arrangements for the rowing boats to come and go between the shore and the ships. The Commanding Officer and a Major of the Royal Engineers took the situation in hand. Volunteers were called for to swim out and bring in many of the boats which were floating idly in the sea, and rowing gangs from men who professed to row were organized. The men of the Battalion formed three sides of a square on the beach facing away from the sea, and into this box parties for the boats were passed as they were made up. It was a fine job of work. Earlier the Colonel had decided that parties of waifs and strays without a unit should take precedence; and so it was that 8th Worcestershire came away having seen many another to safety first. Yet it was not immediate safety. For some who fell asleep on the Glen Gower awoke two hours later with visions of the English coast in sight, only to find that they were still at Dunkirk! The ship had steamed five miles down the coast to pick up 200 wounded before heading for Harwich.

The Glen Gower with troops on board

The Glen Gower proved to be a paddle-steamer, familiarly known on the Bristol Channel ferry service. Her decks were packed with troops. Rifles were stacked to save space, and her captain had a busy time shouting instructions to obtain an even distribution of weight on his decks. "Move right down the car, please!" In such a way he balanced his paddles evenly in the water.

So far as enemy interference was concerned it was a lucky day. Only at Dunkirk a German plane straddled the Glen Gower with a stick of bombs and one caught it with a glancing blow. Of the 1,400 men on board, only four or five were hit.

And so to Harwich; and for once "the Glorious First of June" passed uncelebrated!

Those few who lay awake on the journey to Harwich might perhaps have wondered at the kind of reception which awaited them from the people of England. Hardly could they return triumphant as conquering heroes. Yet would there be credit for the stubborn heroism of the past few weeks? Would there be some recognition of the magnitude of the task the B.E.F. were called on to perform at a time when it was being deserted by those on whom it had depended to form a common front against the German armour in its sweep across the Low Countries? They need not have been anxious. In the case of the 8th Worcestershire, a battalion of the Welsh Guards were to be their hosts for a few hours, and they made the small party feel that whatever the circumstances, it was good to be home. First, there was the joy of getting clean, and afterwards a "high tea" of ham, salad, bread and butter, cheese and cake seemed a veritable banquet after the scanty rations of the past three weeks. As the men formed up to catch the train to Derby, a crowd collected along the railings by the station and gave them a cheer. It was the tonic they needed; and once again the old spirit was alive.

In such ways the return of an army in its grievous loss was to shake the people of England from their apathy and brace them to meet the danger ahead.

It was not until 4th June that at Kington the Battalion was able to halt and take stock of its resources. Unlike many units, it had brought away its rifles and some had managed to carry their L.M.Gs. At Kington for a month it re-formed. Two large drafts were received, one from the Depot at Worcester, the other from the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Wrexham. With the arrival of about 400 new recruits, new clothing and light equipment, the Battalion was once again an active unit ready to train for the next phase. From Kington on 3rd July a move was made to Somerset, where billets were found in two villages, Castle Cary and Bruton, with Brigade H.Q. at Frome. The role of the 48th Division was now that of "anti-invasion," and in this capacity they proceeded into Cornwall. Transport was by single-decker Western National buses, and the Battalion went into camp at Lanhydrock, near Bodmin.

On 5th August the Battalion moved to Penryn and Falmouth, where, under the orders of Admiral Kitson, it was responsible for the defence of Falmouth. Once again it was a matter of digging and wiring round Falmouth and Penryn, with heavy guard duties by night. The usual alarms and rumours interrupted work with frequent orders to "stand-to." On 12th October they returned to Truro. Exmoor and Amesbury provided the areas for anti-invasion exercises and weapon training. All the time further additions in arms and equipment were arriving, and by May, 1941, the 48th Division, though still in an anti-invasion role, was complete in equipment, was mobile with all its transport services and up to full establishment.

On the 21st May 1941 a move was made to Tiverton, Brigade H.Q. being close by in Cullompton. The Battalion left the Brigade for a short period from 20th June until 19th July for Brixton, near Plymouth. This allowed for the 11th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment to take its place in the Brigade for training purposes and afforded all ranks a welcome rest.

Yet another move followed to St. Austell, in Cornwall, on 21st August, the Brigade going to Bridestow, near Okehampton. It was at St. Austell that for a brief period the whole Battalion became screen artists for the purpose of making the film "Next of Kin." The new role, however, was interrupted on 26th September when the whole of the 48th Division took part in exercise "Bumper" and finished up at Woburn, in Bedfordshire. The exercise was on a large scale with tanks in battle on both sides and was a clear indication of the degree to which our armed forces had been able to recover and equip since the tragic days of Dunkirk.

By 5th October the Battalion was back at St. Austell to complete its film work. But on 15th October it rejoined the Brigade at Okehampton, and early in November the whole Division moved north to Lincolnshire, Battalion H.Q. being at Hungerton Hall, Grantham, with companies scattered around. On 29th November, 1941, the Battalion moved to North Somercotes. Thereafter north Lincolnshire was to remain the training area for many months. Constant moves for the sake of movement seemed at times to be the policy of higher authority, and in 1942 Louth, Woodhall Spa and Market Rasen were visited, with frequent exercises at Rufford and elsewhere.

8th Battalion men of transport section (1941)
(photo supplied by Peter Butlin - his father Horace served with the 8th Battalion)

First at North Somercotes and then at Louth in January, 1942, where H.Q. was set up in a new drill hall, the role was coastal defence. The War Diary reflects the monotony of the period after the campaign in France, and entries tell of snow, frost, voluntary church parades and coastal exercises. It is almost with a sense of relief that reference is made to the successful baling out of the crew of a Manchester bomber which crashed in the Battalion area. It was a constant struggle to maintain and stimulate interest. For the work in hand, the preparation of the 48th Division in a role to meet the threatened invasion, was still of vital significance. District exercises were, however, frequently packed with interest. The allowance for fifth columnists provided with false identity papers lent a certain excitement to the proceedings. But it is a little incongruous to find in the same orders covering such matters that "special care will be taken not to alarm flocks of sheep by firing blank owing to the lambing season !"


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