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|Dunkirk - Memories of a Phoney War|
|The following is an extract from the memories of 2nd Lieutenant J. P. Stiles (later Major) who was part of an advance party of the 8th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment:|
In March 1940 the 8th battalion Worcestershire
Regiment was despatched to the Saar front to take over a spell of duty in the Ligne de
Contacte, the first unit of 144 Brigade to do so. The initial move was to the village of Lorry-de-Metz and I was in the advance party with Major Geoff Day and the
Q.M., Aubrey Graham, but I have no idea why I was included. It certainly wasn't for my fluency in the French language, which was of the 'La plume de ma tante est dans le jardin' variety, and I was a junior subaltern.
The three of us went into the French officers' club in Metz and being young and impressionable I remember looking at the coat-hooks in the hall which were covered with wonderful highly-coloured kepis and cloaks, with super red linings &c., some belonging to the Spahis regiments. We had a drink and lunch in the club before moving on to Lorry-de-Metz, which I think was in Alsace, as the local inhabitants were German-speaking and not very friendly. I remember the young teenage daughter of the family where we had our Company Mess gave us unfriendly and glowering looks; perhaps she was frightened, without cause, of being raped by the licentious English soldiers. Lorry-de-Metz was a very dull place and disappointing after our 'Beau Geste' impressions in Metz.
I think our next move was to Kedange, well behind the Maginot Line proper, where we were encamped outside the village, in which a battalion of the French Foreign Legion was billeted. Our C.O., Lieut.- Col. J. Johnstone, put the village out of bounds, as in the cafés at night there were frequent brawls and knifings. We all agreed with him, as no one was keen to be knifed! From here I was lucky to be included in a party to visit the Maginot Line, which was quite incredible. Each fort had its own personnel (a war-long posting) and was air-conditioned to keep out gas; it also had its own railway. We saw the turrets with their guns and machine-guns and in front of the line of forts were anti-tank ditches and vast amounts of wire. All very impressive - but a pity it did not extend to the Belgian frontier and along to the sea.
During this phoney war period the press had been trying to drum up stories and of course the RAF was included. A New Zealand RAF Officer `Cobber' Kain, who was the ace in France at that time, came in for some attention; much to his own alarm and reluctance. While in the support line we watched an aerial combat at about 20,000 feet. One Hurricane versus two or three 109's. Eventually there was a puff of smoke and then flame and a parachute descending. This was `Cobber' Kain who had been shot down and baled out at 12,000 feet. He landed in No Man's Land and fortunately the French rescued him before the Germans could reach him.
Later, in June 1940, Flying Officer Kain who had been awarded the D.F.C. was going to return to England and decided to have a final 'beat up' over the aerodrome in a Hurricane. Flying low over the aerodrome he executed two slow rolls and then commenced a third, but a wing tip touched the ground and the plane crashed, throwing Edgar Kain clear but causing him fatal head injuries. A sad end to a brilliant and brave RAF pilot.
From Kedange we moved to the Ligne de Receuil or Ligne de Reduit, I can't recall which, then into the Ligne de Contacte. My platoon held a position which had been held by a platoon of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry which had been raided by the Germans. The enemy had put down a mortar box barrage and when everyone's head was down they rushed the post to take prisoners &c. I could quite clearly see on the trees the cuts and marks of the mortar fire. The position on my right was called International Post, the international flavour being supplied by French troops with British signallers. The French were always firing machine-gun bursts and I kept rushing over to see if there was a major attack in progress, to be told they were only warming their guns! At night this post was plagued by strange lights advancing towards it and the French, who would fire at anything, would shoot at these, when German LMG fire would open up at the French gun flashes.
In an unguarded moment I suggested to my Company Commander, Capt. D. J. Phillpotts, that a standing patrol should be installed one night at the bridle path crossing about 500 yards below the International Post. He mentioned this to the C.O., who said, 'Tell Stiles to take a patrol there. They are to gain information only and not start a war.' Why didn't I keep my mouth shut! I took a corporal and four men and took up a position with the corporal and two men on one side of the crossing and the rest of us on the other, facing in all directions, with our heels together. I faced forward, overlooking a ditch. I had been given an Italian Beretta, which was like a Tommy-gun. From about 1800 hours we lay motionless for 3-4 hours; I had the Beretta held in front of me. Suddenly, I saw a couple of lights ahead: they came nearer and nearer and were moving from side to side and up and down. When they had almost reached us they stopped advancing, but continued moving up and down and side-ways. I have never been a fisherman, but even I recognised the sound of a fishing reel: the Germans had miners' lamps on the end of long fishing rods. The soldier holding a rod was to the side, so that when the French fired at the light they missed him, and about ten yards each side of him was a German with an L.M.G. to fire at the French muzzle-flashes.
The Germans must have known we were there as they just circled round us and one crawled up the ditch in front of me. Having lain still for so long I was appalled to find my hands and arms had completely 'gone to sleep': I had no feeling in them at all and would have been unable to use the Beretta or drop a grenade on the German. After about half an hour, however, they decided they had had enough of this cat and mouse game and retreated towards Zeusange and their own lines. Making sure they had really gone, we got to our feet and eventually brought life back to our arms and legs, then returned to the International Post, ensuring we gave the password clearly, as we were a bit nervous of the trigger-happy French. I submitted the usual report, though as far as I remember no one gave me any praise or blame, but we had certainly cleared up the mystery of the strange lights.
Most mornings I took out a patrol in front of our position about dawn, when every clump of bushes, before investigation, appeared to be a mass of Germans armed to the teeth. Rum was issued to us in big stone jars and I arranged for this to be put in the mugs of tea we had after the morning 'Stand to', when everyone was `browned off' and cold. It certainly cheered up the men no end.
When I went down to Company H.Q. at Waldeistroff one morning a troop of French horse-drawn guns arrived. They sat down and proceeded to have lunch, French bread and meat and bottles of wine. Suddenly after lunch they became alert and military and for about five minutes fired round after round towards the German lines. They stopped as suddenly as they had started, hitched up the guns and limbers and were off at a fast gallop, which astonished us - till German counter-battery fire fell near and round us. I believe these French gunners were called 'Gypsy batteries'.
Just before leaving the Ligne de Contacte I was again visiting my Company Commander one morning and he asked his batman to bring me a mug of tea. Whether or not the water-truck was late I don't know, but the tea was made for me with water from the garden well, which was probably poisoned, as a day or two later, back at our permanent quarters at Mondeaux, I developed dysentry or gastro-enteritis, which laid me low for some time. The M.O. (Captain Jones, who was sadly killed at Wey Velvain when tending the wounded under mortar fire) treated me and I thought I was cured, but unfortunately I had another attack en route to Dunkirk. I eventually dropped in my tracks and was taken to a Field Ambulance for evacuation, but that is another story.
I think we acquitted ourselves quite well at the front and I recall that when relieved we were in the support line and watched a platoon of Highlanders from the 51st Highland Division march up the road towards the Ligne de Contacte. In this area we had always marched in artillery formation, in sections on either side of the road and spaced out. The Highlanders amazed us by marching up the road in threes, which we thought rather unprofessional. We were right, as there must have been a German spotter plane around and the Germans immediately shelled the road and us.
In the Ligne de Contacte our positions were fairly deep trenches in the 1914-18 style, except that they were not in a continuous line but spaced out in sections. I had a small dugout in my area which I shared with a signaller. From the front of the wood ahead of our position we looked across a valley towards the German positions, which were trenches also dug in a wood. At the bottom of the valley was the deserted village of Leurange, with the church tower in the middle of the houses. This village was constantly patrolled by both sides and one night a German was heard playing the organ in the church. Another night the Germans hoisted a Nazi flag on the tower; the following night Sergeant Donald with a patrol hauled down the flag and replaced it with an old piece of red cloth. The flag is now in the Regimental Museum in Worcester.