- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Hector Morgan
- Location of story:
- Belgium and France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 February 2004
This is from my biography of my father as recalled by him in the nineteen nineties:
THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE
My father was recalled to the army on 15th August 1939 as a reservist, ostensibly for special training. The situation in Europe had deteriorated badly and conflict seemed inevitable, so he wasn't that surprised. As it was, he'd had only a couple of months to go before his period as a reservist was over. It is not unlikely that he would have rejoined anyway, however, as he still had very good memories of his army life. Also being the man he was, he would have felt it his duty to contribute such military skills as he had to the war effort, in spite of his wife's reservations.
He was posted to Aldershot, rejoining his old regiment on 4th September. He fell in the ranks as a private soldier, but when the sergeant major came along he said "I've seen you before. You were a lance corporal in India. You're still a lance corporal. Get your stripe up!" The sergeant major had been in India at the same time as my father! It seemed that there was no hiding place in the British Army. He was promptly placed in charge of a group of new recruits and detailed to escort them to their next location. They went to a camp in Surrey and stayed there for a week or so, and then were called back to Aldershot. On the Sunday after they got back, the news was given out that War had been declared.
They were immediately drawn together as a battalion comprising 28 officers, 20 warrant officers, 34 sergeants, 52 corporals and lance corporals, 10 buglers, and 589 privates making 733 in all. They were to be sent over to France on 22nd September as part of the British Expeditionary Force. This had been forming under the command of General the Viscount Gort. It comprised 3 Corps and four Divisions with two Brigades per Division and 3 Battalions per Brigade. In I Corps under Lt General Sir John Dill, the 1st Division under Major-General Alexander comprised the 1st Guards Brigade and 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades. The 2nd Infantry Brigade comprised the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, 2nd Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment and the 1st Battalion Loyals under Lt Colonel Collins, who had been a 2nd Lieutenant in the Battalion in the First World War. II Corps included the 3rd Division under the command of Major-General Bernard Montgomery.
The 2nd battalion the Loyals crossed the channel on the SS Viking. On nearly all the ships, the troops entertained themselves by singing that favourite song 'South of the Border'. The sound of the singing drifting over the water had a haunting effect that was long remembered. Quite why they were so cheerful is not difficult to understand. Apart from some of the senior officers, few, if any, had any battle experience. In the case of my father, who by then had amassed eight years active service, his only experiences of combat had been a few skirmishes in the mountains of the North West Frontier, none of which could really be considered a battle. None of them had come face to face with a well equipped, well trained, disciplined and determined army in battle. They did not know what they would be facing, but had a kind of faith that, as the army of the British Empire, they had all the capability they needed to combat any threat. After all, the Germans had been beaten in the Great War hadn't they? This Hitler chap was just an upstart that needed putting in his place. The next few months did little to change this misapprehension.
After landing at Cherbourg they went through transit camps at attractive little villages such as Asse and Souge where they stayed for six days. My father recollects a small place called Pornichet on the French west coast. There, my father recalled, they camped under canvas for about three weeks. The weather wasn't too bad, there was plenty of food, and so the conditions at this temporary camp were quite reasonable. For those with experience in the Scout Movement, it must have seemed a pleasant interlude.
Official records show that half of the battalion was then sent by train to Fresnay-sur-Sarthe, north of Le Mans and on 26th September left there by train from Sille le Gillaume to Arras in the North. The journey took 24 hours. The remainder went by road. Those who went by road had the better journey as the trains were packed on the assumption that forty men were the equivalent of eight horses. From Arras the battalion marched to Bailleul, five miles away where they were billeted. The battalion set up camp under canvas for a few days, then started getting orders to move up towards the Belgian frontier (Belgium was maintaining a neutral stance at that time).
After this frantic activity, getting the British Expeditionary Force established in France, a certain sense of unreality descended as not a lot was happening. This was the period of calm before the storm later called the 'phoney war', which lasted through to the following spring with no fighting of any significance taking place. Even so, it was only slowly that the tension eased, and the commanders did what they could to generate a state of preparedness for whatever was to come. About the only bit of excitement my father could recollect during this period was when someone told them that there was to be a cock-fight down in the village, so a whole group of them went to see the action. Although for some of them there was a welcome level of excitement, it didn't take long for my father to decide that it wasn't really his scene.
The Battalion had been organised into four fighting companies; A,B,C, and D, plus an HQ company, with my father leading a section in D company. Because of billeting requirements, the different parts of the battalion were sent to different places. My father, with D company, after several moves, occupied some old brickworks at Huquinville, a village four miles south of Peronne. This was a somewhat dilapidated structure and had holes in the roof. Nonetheless it was used to accommodate C and D companies. Not for long, however as on 15th October, the roof over the section occupied by D company collapsed! Fortunately, many of the men, including my father, were outside at the time, and there were no injuries. After this the company moved to some barns in Huquinville.
Meanwhile the battalion started digging defences on a sector of the reserve line, running from Nomain to La Cailliere. These were tiny settlements close to the Belgian border, west of Lille. There they were given the task of constructing anti-tank ditches and it was in this activity that my father at last found some use for his mining skills. He showed others how to undercut an embankment with a pick so that the weight of the soil was used to do much of the work. Unfortunately they had to construct these earth works in pouring rain that lasted for days. It rapidly degenerated into a mud bath and became really exhausting work. It became so bad that labour had to be diverted to repairing the cobbled roads which were being broken up by the heavy military traffic. For my father, this did not seem much like his experiences in India, except for the fact that the weather seemed like a very cold monsoon! Eventually amenities began to improve, and on 24th October they started using pit-head baths at a colliery near Ostricourt, north of Douai. This, of course, brought back memories to my father and he felt almost at home.
By this time my father had settled back into military life and was quite at home with the day-to-day activities. Indeed the level of action although apparently nothing to do with fighting a war, was very much greater than he had experienced on the Indian plains so he was not at all unhappy. Most of the B.E.F comprised regular troops or recalled reservists. The unit under his charge was no different. It numbered six plus himself and they were expected to be essentially self-sufficient. They were given tasks by the company senior NCO and my father was expected to see that the tasks were completed. Most of these were mundane until they started getting positions ready to defend the French/Belgian border.
It is interesting to remind ourselves of the views of those in charge of the B.E.F. at this time. General Alan Brooke, in command of II Corps wrote in his diary on 28 November 1939, "I feel that we are unlikely ever to defend the front we have spent so much thought and work in preparing." Montgomery spent the winter training his 3rd Division in moving across country at night as he was sure that Belgium, if attacked would have to be defended at the river Dyle. So it was to prove.
My father's recollections of this period were that he felt that a lot of activity had been created mainly to keep the men occupied while those in charge decided what to do. He didn't think the defences they had created would keep a determined enemy at bay for more than a few days and probably not that. Nobody seemed to know what was going to happen next. An air of uncertainty was descending. Everyone was waiting for the next moves by the German Army.
Meanwhile B and D companies took over the billets in Templeuve vacated by A and C companies who had gone to Wannehain. They continued to work on the reserve line until 27th November when they moved to Bourghelles. During the winter several new officers joined the Battalion, Major J. G. Sandie having been one, and Major G. W. Gibson was another. Both were to feature in my father's war-time experiences.
While they were in this area they found the locals were carrying on their lives just as in peace-time. On those occasions when they went into Cysoing, they came across typical street markets, with people selling home-grown produce. The local inhabitants were apparently confident in the French Army and the Maginot Line. Surely the Germans wouldn't attack them? The B.E.F. was not so sure. Since the principal duty they had was to patrol the frontier, guarding against smugglers, fifth columnists and so on, the commanding officer, Major Sandie, decided that he would test the defences by getting through himself.
One night while members of my father's platoon were on guard, he tried to get through under cover of darkness. As he tried to get through the barbed wire where it crossed a stream, he was challenged by two of the sentries posted by my father with the traditional cry "Halt! Who goes there?" He struggled to get by but had to give in and call out "It's your commanding officer." Even so he still found himself facing the sharp ends of two bayonets while tangled up in the wire and still half in the stream. When they had extricated him, he said to my father "Bloody good effort there, Corporal. How did you know where to find me?" "It's the way you put 'em out, Sir." "Good for you." said the C.O. "Want a cigarette?" One up to the troops!
On 5th December the 1st Loyals was visited by King George VI, and the Battalion lined the streets of Bourghelles to welcome him. The regimental historian says that Christmas was celebrated in the usual manner with parties being given for the local children. My father, however, recollects that his Christmas dinner was bully beef stew, though he does remember the children's parties! They heard radio reports of Christmas presents and all sorts of stuff being sent to the troops, but they didn't see any of it.
Through the early months of 1940 the Battalion was given the task of training officers from various other regiments. The winter was very hard with heavy snow in January and February. The months of quiet ended on 9th April with news that Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway. The phoney war was at an end. During this period my father had hoped to visit the grave of his brother David who had died on the Somme in the First World War, but sadly was not permitted to do so. In the Normandy landings four years later, David's son David Arthur (a master baker) came ashore on D-Day plus four, as a cook attached to Montgomery's HQ signals staff. He was unable to visit his father's grave either.
In order to prepare for what was to come, the 2nd Infantry Brigade, which now included the 6th Gordons instead of the 1st Battalion, moved back sixty miles by road to the valley of the Somme. The column of vehicles was estimated to occupy 33 miles of road and travelled at 10 miles per hour. Hardly a speedy response to the German blitzkrieg!
The following day they took up defensive positions on the North Bank of the Somme in cold and wet conditions. For a few days they held various exercises such as river crossings, laying anti-tank mines and night operations. The exercises stopped on 10th May when Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Then began a period of three weeks, the like of which none of them had experienced nor ever would again.
In accordance with a previously agreed plan, the Brigade was recalled to Bourghelles. That evening all non-essential kit, private property etc were stored in a brigade dump (which was subsequently looted). They were then told they were moving up to the front line. The Brigade column formed up and left on 11th May with 1st Loyals near its head. They crossed the border of the now decidedly not neutral Belgium, and passed slowly through Tournai, Renaix, Nederbrakel, and Ninove receiving friendly greetings from their inhabitants. They reached the southwest outskirts of Brusselles at about 2 a.m. on 12th May, and the 1st Loyals then marched on to Hoef on the southern outskirts. Here they managed a couple of hours sleep and had breakfast.
All was not gloom, however, and there were occasional lighter moments to treasure. One such was the time when my father was on guard duty at Bourghelles near the Belgian border when a soldier walked in and said "Corp. I'm in trouble." "What's the trouble?" asked my father. "Six years I've been waiting for this!" said the soldier. My father, being none the wiser tried again: "What are you talking about?" "When I was in India there was a certain fellow there - a Sergeant that was a real bloody swine - that I always wanted to get my own back on." "Well, what happened?" asked my father. "I've been waiting all these years since I got back from India. When I got to Wannehain I saw the Bugger coming the other way down the road, so I went up to him and hit him. Put me in clink, Corp.!" There wasn't much of a 'Clink', so he was put on a charge and matters left until later.
The task for the Battalion was to defend a section of the river Dyle, 15 miles east of Brussels and they reached Neerysche, five miles up river from Louvain at 5 p.m. The Dyle valley was bare and afforded little cover. A continuous stream of refugees was crossing the river by a bridge at the hamlet of Wolfshaegen.
As my father was heading east with his section, he was challenged by an officer: "Where do you think you're going, Corporal?"
"We're going to the front, Sir," was my father's reply.
"You are the bloody front," the officer retorted." Follow me!"
So it was that my father's journey finally turned westward.
The river was easily fordable, and digging of defences began immediately. Quite how these ditches were supposed to deter the German Panzer Divisions was not clear to my father, but, orders are orders. B and D companies were deployed near the river bank, with A and C companies higher up the slope and held in reserve. There was, however a gap of two miles, the nearest troops who belonged to a division of II Corps, being on the outskirts of Louvain. Fortunately, no contact was made with the enemy and the night passed without incident.
Before reviewing what happened next it is worth examining just what these forces amounted to. The whole BEF amounted now to ten Divisions, comprising four Brigades of three Battalions each, a Battalion being about 800-1000 men. Together with the French 1st Army this amounted to around 400,000 men, which may seem a lot. However at the somewhat more local level the picture wasn't so bright. An infantry company comprised about a hundred or so officers and men under a company commander who was normally a Captain or Major. The company was organised into three platoons of thirty each plus company HQ staff, each platoon having an officer, usually a Lieutenant, and a Platoon Sergeant. The platoon was organised into four sections of six men each led by a corporal or lance corporal.
For the majority, their only weapons were a Lee Enfield 303 rifle and ammunition, a bayonet and a few hand grenades. This was little different from the First World War. Within a section there would be a Bren gun (a heavy machine gun) within a company, there might be a Sten gun with carrier (a heavier weapon). There were a few anti-tank guns, but these were no match for Panzer armour. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were few and far between with just a few armoured cars in the Divisional cavalry and a light armoured unit of the French 1st Army. As was seen earlier, they were hardly a fast moving outfit and it is noteworthy that, on most days, my father's unit was able to get from place to place on foot almost as quickly as the motorised units. With these meagre weapons they were expected to hold their ground against a numerically superior force. The German army was equipped with more, much faster armoured vehicles (including the Panzer divisions). Also, there were two German Army groups totalling more than twice the number of troops, with many individual soldiers having sub-machine guns. The contrast in fire-power was stark.
The 13th May was spent in digging and otherwise improving the defences. During the day there were several bombing and machine gun attacks from the air, in the course of which the first battalion casualty was taken; a private in C company who was killed. The River began to overflow its banks on the 14th so D company was deployed astride the railway south of Neerysche and B company was placed on high ground in reserve. C, A and D companies, including my father and his section, had now become the front line. My father recalled that he felt concerned for his men and a bit expectant, but otherwise quite calm.
What is interesting is the confirmation that an army marches on it's stomach, as will be seen from the stories that follow. There seems to have been an assumption by the army command that once in action, soldiers were expected to fend for themselves. Certainly, almost as much time seems to have been spent finding food as in fighting the enemy.
A little while after being re-deployed my father's unit had landed at a little farm house. The farmer came out and asked them if they wanted anything and said he had some bacon if they would like it. They most certainly did! So he gave them a leg of bacon, and as there were chicken hutches nearby which should provide eggs, they were looking forward to eggs and bacon for breakfast that morning. Getting it, however, was not uneventful. My father remembers it thus:-
"While we were getting ready to eat I heard a sound behind me which I didn't like. So I took another man with me and we went to one of the huts with our rifles ready, and an officer popped his head out of the door. "Hello corporal" he said "What are you looking for?" I said "I'm looking for anything I can find. Any eggs?" "Certainly" said the officer and called to the chap that was with him who gave us a tin hat full of eggs. We'd not had much in the way of real food for several days so we had a glorious time that morning!
"Now it wasn't much later - no more than a couple of hours - that we'd been there when armoured cars started coming past us going in the opposite direction and an officer shouted to us "Get going. Get going. He's following us!" (meaning the German Army). So we packed up our gear and away we went, down into the valley. Not very far from there we came to a cheese factory that was still in operation. The sight of so much cheese was wonderful. We hadn't eaten fresh cheese for ages, so we had a real cheese feast."
They moved a bit further back away from the banks of the river Dyle and took up positions there. A few snipers were having a go at them but they didn't come to any harm. During the morning there were three enemy aircraft attacks but no casualties. At 1 p.m. the outposts, including my father's unit, were withdrawn and two hours later the Weert - St George bridge was blown. All they could do now, was wait.
The night of the 14th - 15th May was very noisy. A battle developed a little way north of the Loyals location (where the Gordon Highlanders were) and the S.O.S. went up. All Bren guns on fixed lines came into action. Throughout the 15th some occasional shelling took place, and towards dusk, small parties of enemy troops could be seen approaching the bottom of the valley, which had become a swamp. There was continual small arms fire along the whole 2nd Brigade front during the night, and also some shelling, but no attack developed. In the morning there was some sporadic shelling that became heavier in the afternoon, but with no casualties it was with some surprise that they received orders to retire. All the cattle in the area had been driven behind the lines and troops were supplementing their rations by milking one or two. The odd pig got killed as well. At night the tension was somehow increased by the croaking of millions of frogs, a racket almost as loud as gunfire. My father never mentioned adding frogs' legs to his diet!
What the troops did not know was that by this date, 16th May, only six days after launching its offensive, the German army had overrun most of Holland to the North and had broken through two French armies to the South. Between Antwerp and Namur, the B.E.F, the Belgian Army, and the 1st French Army were still in position as planned, with 1st Loyals in the middle of their front line, and D company at the eastern extremity. To prevent the whole force becoming cut off they were ordered to retreat to the River Scheldt. My father's section was right at the rear as they retreated, though his officers seem to have referred to it as going to the front line!
The retreat was to be carried out in three stages, to the River Senne, the River Dendre, and then the River Scheldt. The troops were told to discard their packs, blankets and some tools and mess gear to lighten their load. The forward troops, including D company, were to thin out at 9.30 leaving rear guard parties to hold for another hour and a half. My father described this process as trying to persuade the enemy that a single section was a full company. They would move sections out, one by one, and the remaining soldiers would move under cover, firing their rifles from different places, but occasionally only as they had limited ammunition. A burst from a Bren gun was used from time to time to suggest even higher firepower. If the conquering German army had realised how few troops were actually holding the 'front line', they could have overrun them with minimal effort. It was only much later that positions were prepared for a real 'stand' to hold up the advancing hordes.
The main body of the Battalion marched back along the railway to Dutsburg, leaving a platoon of each company to hold the position. Each withdrew in sections and all got away without incident by 11.40 p.m., but came under shellfire two hours later. At 2.45 a.m. on the 17th they took up a position by the cross roads between the Maline - Nivelle road and the Brussels - Wavre road. Everyone was tired having had little or no sleep for 48 hours, and there was no food available.
At 9.00 a.m. they continued the withdrawal to Rattendael, five miles Southwest of Brussels, reaching it at 2 p.m. The German army entered Brussels that afternoon. Perhaps pre-occupied by their winning of the nations capital, the German army did not pursue the B.E.F. with any great ferocity any further that day. The 1st Loyals were then put in reserve and occupied a chateau where they were met by the Quartermaster but they were given no rations. Despite some bombing during the afternoon, the men washed their feet in the lake and rested. My father related that the situation was very confused and very unreal. There they were, sitting cooling their feet in the lake, while attempts were being made to enable the B.E.F. to withdraw in an orderly manner. At the same time, they were being pursued by an army with better equipment, total confidence and great determination.
What is clear in retrospective, is that because Belgium, having been a neutral country up to the point of invasion, had not permitted any incursion of the B.E.F, no supply provision had been established anywhere in its territory. It is hard to understand why no supply chain had been set up along its border with France that could have been moved north so as to provide munitions for the armed forces to at least give them a fighting chance. Similarly, the lack of any effective provision of food and drink seems foolhardy in the extreme. It would have been perfectly possible to establish food dumps and the associated logistics to get the food to the troops at pre-defined points. Although the B.E.F was sent ostensibly to defend its allies, it was not given even the most basic materiel with which to accomplish this task. The enemy, on the other hand, seemed to have no difficulty in keeping its troops well supplied, even though its forces were moving forward quickly and so stretching its supply lines.
At 11 p.m. the 1st Batallion continued its withdrawal through Lennick St Martin, but progress was slow as the road was narrow and congested with artillery, lorries and refugees. The eight miles to the Assche-Castre road took until dawn on the 18th, but again when they stopped no food was available. The four rifle companies took up a position alongside the road.
At 8 a.m. the main body of the battalion moved off again, marching south of the main Brussels - Renaix road, passing the villages of Lombeek St Marie, Bereham, Kruis, Roesbeke and Meerbeke, and avoiding Ninove which was being bombed. They crossed the River Dendre at Sandbergen, four miles up river from Ninove, and reached their next stop at Appelterre at 4.00 p.m. after a hot and tiring 15 mile march. My father's memory of these days and nights is of marching on fields, verges, anything but roads. He described it thus: "Marching on fields is desperately tiring and we had been on the move with very little rest, almost no food and watching our rear continually. Nobody said much, we were just too tired. Now and again I'd be given something specific to do, but mostly I'd just keep my section together and follow the unit in front until the next stop."
The battalion again positioned themselves in cornfields, this time on the left bank of the Dendre with C and D companies in forward positions near Eychem. With the 1st Guards Brigade holding Ninove and Eychem in spite of the bombing, and the 2nd North Staffs on the Loyals right all seemed secure, and in the evening the bridges were blown up. Stage two of the withdrawal to the Scheldt was complete.
In the early hours of May 19th it was decided to withdraw the whole 1st Division across the Scheldt, all of them using the Brussels - Renaix road. The 2nd Infantry Brigade was to form the rearguard and was to leave at 10.00 a.m. While they were still preparing to leave, enemy shelling and bombing caused heavy casualties among the Guards, and prevented the transport getting nearer than seven miles. As a result the two groups left late and found themselves marching along either side of the road together, the Loyals at the rear. There was some dive bombing and although casualties were light among the troops, the refugees suffered badly. When they reached the transport it was insufficient and some had to continue marching.
Passing through Nederbrakel, Renaix and Berchem (which they had traversed in the opposite direction with such confidence only a week previously) they crossed the Scheldt, and the last troops got to Pont-a-Chin, Northeast of Tournai at 8.00 p.m. They had covered about 40 miles that day, and for my father's section it had been all on foot. On the way through one of these villages (he couldn't remember which), my father recalls being involved in a cat and mouse game with a Stuka pilot. He and his unit were trying to cross a square in the village when the Stuka dived and strafed the area and they had to hide in house doorways. Just as they thought he had gone and they started to cross the square, the Stuka would come around again and they would have to dive for cover. This happened several times. Eventually he must have run out of ammunition or fuel, because they made it across without attack and continued on their way.
While the whole B.E.F., with the French 1st Army on their right and the Belgian Army on their left, were now behind the Scheldt, their situation was still grave as the Germans were right behind them and on both sides, driving towards the coast. In their position, north of Tournai, the Loyals had D and A companies forward with B and C companies in reserve. During the evening, German troops were seen on Mont St Aubert, a hill 500 feet high and two miles east of the river.
On the 20th, effort was spent on digging in and improving the defences, whilst under sniper fire from across the river. In the evening the enemy artillery began to make its presence felt. The Scheldt is normally an effective barrier, but at this time the level was abnormally low, and at 8.00 a.m. on May 21st the enemy succeeded in crossing the river to the north, trying to drive a wedge between the Belgians and the B.E.F, and swung south towards the 2nd North Staffs. During the day D company came under artillery fire, one man being killed and eight others wounded. In spite of all this action the casualty count in the whole of the B.E.F. at this stage was only about 500 and its fighting efficiency was unimpaired, except that ammunition was running very short.
The German armoured divisions, driving coastwards to the South however, had entered Abbeville and were swinging north threatening to cut them off from the sea. In spite of an attempted counter attack from Arras utilising all available reserves, the greatly superior enemy force pushed them back. On 22nd May heavy shelling destroyed D company's headquarters, killing signals Sergeant Davis. C and D companies had four men killed and sixteen wounded. However, at this stage, my father's unit was intact with nothing worse than a few blisters. With its own artillery down to five rounds per gun per day, the B.E.F. could do little to respond. The Allied Command consequently decided to retire to the positions prepared behind the Franco-Belgian border north of Bourghelles the previous winter. When my father heard of this next move, he felt that at least the work completed in the rain might be of some help. He was, however, by no means convinced that they could do more than briefly slow down the opposing forces. As he said "In the Loyals, we had no armour, and nothing capable of stopping armoured cars let alone tanks. So far, we had not seen them very close, but that was soon to change. On top of that, we were desperately tired, hungry, and it was more bloody mindedness and discipline, than confidence, that gave us the fighting spirit that we still had."
At 11 p.m., after three hours of shelling and machine gun fire, the 1st Loyals began to withdraw to Lannoy-du-Nord, Southeast of Roubaix. Nonetheless, rearguard parties, including my father's section, remained on the river line for a further three hours, then were given orders to retire and rejoin the Battalion. By the time they had reached the fields near Lannoy, seven miles away, Battalion HQ had been set up. They were informed that half rations were available, and they could kill livestock, milk cattle and help themselves to NAAFI stores. The snag was they were out in the fields, not at HQ!
It was near Lannoy that my father lost his first man, Pat Riley. My father tells the story as he saw it:-
"I put Pat in a position in a hedge looking out across the countryside. Shortly afterwards, a German dispatch rider with a machine gunner in the sidecar happened to turn down the road in which we were concealed. Naturally he was stopped on the way, but the man in the sidecar jumped out, went in through the window of a house we were near and went up the garden. When he got to the top of the garden I heard a crack from a gun and I heard someone shout, "Pat's had it!" He'd been killed. Well, I couldn't understand why, really, because I had put him in a good position underneath the hedge. Apparently, the platoon Sergeant had gone up there after I had placed him and moved him to the edge of a wall. So when the German came up to the end of the wall, he saw him and shot him before he had a chance to move. I was very upset about that. Pat was a good soldier and a friend."
My father's section was an outpost whose job was to watch for and give any information they could on the activities of the enemy. Shortly after the previously described incident, my father had been starting to brew up some tea, when one of his section, Nobby Clark, called, "Stand to!" A German staff car with an officer and two men appeared over the brow of the hill and stopped. The officer stood up using field glasses to survey the scene not eighty yards away and right in front of them. With his men hidden by a dead cow, my father issued instructions to select a target and prepare to fire, single shots, as soon as one of them moved. The soldier to the left of the officer moved first and the three of them dropped and were seen no more.
Within a few minutes a German column of about battalion strength came straight towards them. They then turned left, went across in front of my father's unit and on up to a rise nearby where they turned right and went right across the British front and stopped. By getting Nobby Clark, to fire single shots from the Bren Gun, at 400, 500, 600 yards, they established (when the enemy ducked) that they were 600 yards away. My father sent a message back to H.Q. 'Enemy crossing front, range 600 yards.' The platoon sergeant came up to see what was happening and told them to move back immediately. The German column turned right and had my father's section not moved, they would have been encircled. There were a number of other skirmishes in other sections and companies, but no major attack for a couple of days.
By this time Boulogne had been evacuated, Calais, the destination of the Guards, was under attack and the Germans were approaching the Lille - Dunkirk road. Lille and Roubaix were bombed and shelled, and this could be seen from the Battalion's positions. On 27th May they heard that the Belgian Army was capitulating and that the 2nd Infantry Brigade, now down to two battalions, had Bray - Dunes, between Dunkirk and Nieuport, as its destination. Evacuation by sea, to live to fight another day, was now the only course and there was not much coast left to work with.
The main body of 1st Loyals left Lannoy at 8.00 p.m. leaving a number of rearguard parties. The next job my father's section then had was therefore to cover the retreat. They left a small group with their Bren gun, firing from different positions, starting at the top of the field, then going down halfway firing another burst, and then a bit further to fire another burst and so on. The aim was to give the Germans the impression that they had a full complement of machine gun emplacements there, although they only had the one Bren gun to do it. To help with this impression they put their packs on the walls in an effort to fool the enemy that they were troops. They had to keep this up while the rest of the company moved on down into the village of Lannoy. My father was ordered to leave his section and go down to the village. However, he started to worry when he got there, because the men he had left with the Bren gun were so long coming back. He found, however, that although they hadn't been told about this, they had used their own common sense and had been jumping the walls between the houses as they came down the hill and so got back safely to the village where he met them as they came in.
They were not in Lannoy long before they moved on again, to join the rest of the Battalion, which was on its way to Poperinge, thirty miles away. For a little while they were in Roubaix, where they waited for the German army to follow them. They spent the time hiding here and hiding there watching all approaches. My father had been on forward outpost all one night and was brought in the following morning too tired for anything. As he went up to platoon headquarters the Sergeant Major came up to him and said, "Congratulations Morgan! You've been promoted full corporal from today."
To which my father replied "What a bloody honour!" and dropped on the floor and went to sleep. When he woke up, he told his section, who proceeded to remove the single stripe from one arm and sew it underneath the single stripe on the other, so that he displayed his rank.
The platoon was only in Roubaix for a further few hours when the order came to move again, and off they went. They carried on like that, moving backwards, backwards all the time, mostly by night. They got as far as Poperinge where the Guards crossed in front of them going to Calais, while they were continuing straight on towards Dunkirk by-passing Poperinge. The retreat corridor was now less than twenty miles wide. Five French divisions, which had been cut off near Lille, held out until 31st May. This made it possible for the B.E.F. to by-pass Lille and get to the coast and thereby greatly helped the Dunkirk evacuation.
My father's section had very little time to rest and when thinking they had one of the few opportunities, they had hardly sat down when an officer interrupted them calling "Get out! Get out!" He gathered that the enemy forces were getting close and that the retreat was on again. They didn't stop for much more than half an hour at a time all the way to Bray Dunes. The weather had been pretty bad with pouring rain on the 28th and the enemy had provided a relentless pounding by artillery barrage and air strike by Stukas when the weather was clearer. That more were not killed was a miracle in itself.
The Battalion came together on the 29th and marched on towards Bray Dunes. Before they got there they crossed the Bergues-Furnes canal, which formed part of the perimeter, reportedly 'Marching in fine style - an example to all'. My father remembers only being foot sore and totally shattered by the end of the retreat to Bray Dunes. After they reached Bray Dunes, they had stopped for about two or three hours when one of my father's men said, "I'm off to get some food."
"Be careful! Mind what you're doing!" said my father.
Off he went, and about fifteen minutes later came back with his jacket full of cigarettes.
"Where did you get them? asked my father.
"Found them in a canal" he said "in a NAAFI lorry."
The smoke screen that resulted was apparently a sight to behold! They were then positioned 'defensively' on the sand-hills east of the town. My father recalled having very little ammunition and nothing with which to stop a tank.
A few hours later the Commanding Officer, now promoted Lt Colonel Sandie, came to the company and said "I'm very sorry, boys, but you've got to go back into a counter attack. You're going into Bergues. You've got three trucks of ammunition. If you can get out, good luck, that will depend on how it goes, but we've got to get the 46th Division out. When they're out, you come back." My father got his section together, made sure that they were in good order and set off, more in hope than optimism. The Battalion was somewhat reduced by this time, but marching in companies, Lt Colonel Sandie led them the seven miles to Bergues. He reported to Brigadier Usher, the officer in charge of the defence of the town, who was more than grateful for the reinforcements. His makeshift force had been defending the place for a couple of days.
Bergues is, or was, a walled City with beautiful 17th and 18th century houses and a fort at its centre. The first problem was to get into the place. The shelling was terrible, but they managed to get through the main gate, the Ypres gate, which by then was accessible by the only remaining bridge and thus the only effective entry and exit from the city, all others having been destroyed. My father's section, and the rest of what remained of D company, turned up a narrow alleyway back towards the Fort itself overlooking the Ypres gate which had been allotted to them. My father takes up the story.
"There was shelling all the way and we were jumping from door to door. The German gunners were dropping shell after shell and as soon as they'd dropped one, off we'd go, into another door. It so happened that I was flattening myself in one of the doorways when he dropped one about fifty yards from us. All of a sudden I felt this terrible bash on my back and I said to one of my mates, "That's my lot. I've had it!"
He said "Look behind you Taffy!"
I looked behind and there was a great big cobblestone that had come up from the road and hit me in the backside. That was the only injury I sustained in battle. I couldn't sit comfortably for days!
"Anyhow, I got over that and we went on and took up our positions at the Fort. It had a ramp all around it and we set ourselves up on the ramp. The bombing and shelling continued throughout the day and night of the 31st. We fired on occasional enemy contingents and scouting parties and kept them away from the Ypres gate, but the main problem was the shelling. It didn't dampen our spirits but gave us no rest at all. We were passed being impressed by the German Army, but even we were about to be astonished as it got dark. One of the boys, Bill Platten, who was a corporal as well, said, "I'm going looking for grub, Taffy. I've had enough of this."
"For God's sake take care in this bombing," I said, "you don't know what they're doing next."
"I'll be all right" he said.
Well, about ten minutes later I heard a heavy diesel engine. That's it, I thought, German armoured cars! Well anyhow, this lorry turned up the road where we were, it was a three ton truck. It stopped and there was Bill Platten!
"What the hell've you got there? Food?" I asked.
"Don't know! I haven't seen yet. I found it by the side of the road, jumped in and tried it. It started so I brought it here."
When we looked inside there were tins of Lyles Syrup and packets of army biscuits.
"Well we sat there and we were spooning away at the syrup, till we were nearly sick with it, and chewing the biscuits. Then as I looked up, I saw a young girl about nineteen, she can't have been more, standing, looking at me. So with the best French I knew I said,
"Porquois vous ici?"
She asked "Avez vous manger monsieur?"
I asked again "Why are you here?" and she pointed to one of the arches by the wall. She had about twelve little tots with her, about two years of age.
"God all mighty!" I said to the boys. "Look at that! What's she doing here with all this shelling and bombing?"
There was no one else about. Virtually the whole population had left the town.
So we got a blanket, took it under the arch, laid it on the floor and set the biscuits around the edge got the tins of syrup and put them there. We sat the toddlers down around the blanket and they tucked in as though they hadn't seen food for days, which was probably the case. I'll never forget, as long as I live, the tears running down her face and the look on that girl's face as she said 'Thank you' to me. After they had eaten, we shepherded them into the shelter of the cellars of one of the buildings that was in better condition. Whatever happened to them after that I never discovered.
"We were ordered to prepare to leave during the afternoon of the next day, that would be 1st June, and to see that wounded and other personnel had got out of the town. We then left the town, but stayed near the Ypres gate as a rearguard. The bridge was blown up by sappers and the rest of the Battalion went on back towards Bray Dunes. We stayed by the gate until late evening, but were lucky that no armoured attack was sent against us. We couldn't have stopped them. Then a bit before midnight, we were off again, back tracking leaving Bergues behind us. We took up positions in the Chateau for a while, where there were snipers hanging in the trees, dead. While here I spotted a French soldier sitting on a bench seat, apparently watching the world go by. Wondering what he was up to a couple of us went over to him and found that he was just sitting there, quite dead. We then took up positions in a hedge simply waiting for the enemy to come our way. Those in command eventually got us moving, bringing a lorry to us and took us down to the Popperinge Road. We stopped and waited there while more of the Guards passed by us, and then went on back to Bray Dunes and were sent to the beach. We were then told to go to 'The Mole' where there would be ships to take us home.
"We did just that and went up onto the promenade and all the way down to the docks. We hadn't been there more than half an hour when we were told there would be no more ships that night and were sent back to the beach. It was absolutely chaotic! There was transport everywhere, cars, lorries, all sorts. And women and children crowding around, all piled up on this road and we got totally lost. I lost my unit completely, I had no idea where they went. I was wandering around the promenade on my own with my rifle over my shoulder looking for them. As the day wore on, more troops straggled in, but I couldn't see any of my own unit, so I went back down to the town intending to search for them on the beach.
"As I was wandering down the road I saw a man chewing a biscuit, so I asked if I could have one.
"Yes, here you are" he said. "There's a chap with loads of them in that window over there, he'll let you have some."
So I went over to the window and left with a chest full of biscuits. I carried on down the road and met a young officer who said,
"Excuse me corporal, any chance of a couple of those?"
So I gave him some and I sent him to the same window. He wished me luck and I carried on down the road on my own. I had no idea where I was going, just wandering along when a head popped up out of the floor, from the basement of a house, hotel or something.
"Where are you going chum?" he said.
"Looking for my unit."
"Who are they?"
"Never heard of them! Come on down here."
"So down I went through the hole and into the basement.
"Want a cup of tea?" he said.
I nearly fell through the floor. I said "Not half!"
I sat there drinking tea till it came out of my ears!
"All I want you to do now" he said "is take this tin upstairs, empty the tea-leaves out of it and you'll find a tap standing up there on it's own. Clean the tin out, half fill it with water and bring it down again."
So I did as asked. When I got down again he was getting tins of McConnachies meat and veg down off a shelf.
He said "I want you to open these, put them in the tin and stir 'em up. Make a nice stew of it."
So I did and it was coming along nicely with a Primus underneath it when a head popped down the hole.
"All right down there?"
"Yes! Why?" we said.
"Well you won't be for long. There's three ammunition trucks on fire over here! Get out!"
"So I grabbed the Primus stove, he grabbed the tin and away we went right down to the water's edge. We dug a hole in the sand put the Primus in it, put the tin back on top and built a sand wall around it. We kept it going nicely, then a Sergeant Major came up to me and asked,
"Where're you from?"
"I've lost my unit, Sir" I said. "Don't know where they are"
"No use wandering around here" he said "stay with us! ...How's it going, cook?"
"Oh all right, Sir" he said "All I need is some plates."
So one of the blokes said "I'll get some plates, Sir!"
He went across the promenade into one of the hotels on the front and came back with an arm full of plates.
"We levelled an area to make a sand table, laid the plates out and started dishing up the stew. Well, it was beautiful it was! And just as we decided to do this, the Stukas decided to dive bomb us right down the beach. So we were eating stone, sand, gravel and everything else but that stew was still beautiful. To take shelter, I went across the beach and got under a lorry, and as I did so I saw one of my old mates coming towards me, Battler Harrison.
"Where're you going, Battler?" I asked.
He said "I don't know. I don't know where they are."
So I said he should stay with me and we got back under the lorry and stayed there for about half an hour while they were strafing the beach.
"When we came out we saw Captain Gibson with about twenty blokes with him. "Can we join you, Sir?"
"Yes, certainly. Fall in!" he said. So we fell in and got up onto the prom again.
We stayed near the beach the biggest part of the day and a plane came over and dropped a message to form up in columns at half past nine that night. That night we got the same signal, to form up at nine-thirty on the prom, so we fell in and went up onto the prom and made our way down to the docks again. There were ships in the docks lying all over the place which had been sunk or disabled, and then we could see a ship coming in. There were men in the water who'd been trying to swim out to the ships. They were in a hell of a state. A lot had drowned because they couldn't do it. They were still wearing their boots and some were carrying their packs and trying to hold their rifles over their heads.
"When the boat came to the dock we were ordered to get aboard, and as we did, the sailors were taking our rifles and guns from us and slinging them down the hold. "You don't need them!" the sailors said. Well I remember getting on that boat, but I do not remember crossing the channel. I didn't know where I was. One of my chaps said,
"Come on, Taff. We're here."
"Where?" I said.
I'd had no idea I was crossing the channel. I was that tired."
The ship they returned to England on, HMS Windsor, had been one of the last ships to take members of the B.E.F. out of Dunkirk, although more ships went into Dunkirk the following day to pick up several thousand French soldiers who had formed the final rearguard. Not all of the French got out, unfortunately, but they had made a major contribution to the evacuation of the B.E.F. Reflecting on this many years later, my father felt that the Belgian Army had simply not been prepared for any kind of battle. The French Army, on the other hand, had fought hard and well and he had great respect for them. He was not so respectful of British high command, who, he felt had let the troops down by not giving them the wherewithal to fight a war. He also felt that in the circumstances the B.E.F had done the best it could and he was more than grateful that he had not been left behind and the continent.
My father's return to Blighty took place in a curious atmosphere. The Nation was in shock at the defeat of their army. The soldiers were to some extent in shock from the stress of the previous three weeks of continuous retreat. My father recalled being somewhat uneasy about how they would be received. Whatever the reason, they were still very much 'on-edge'.
"We were met at Dover with a nice cup of tea, and then we were put on a train which took us to Farnborough in Hampshire. We were given a couple of tents to sleep in for what there was of us, and told we could sleep until they had some food for us. Now Farnborough aerodrome was not far from us, and as we slept a couple of big bombers came over the top of the camp. You've never seen a farce like it in your life. There were blokes dashing out of their tents grabbing guns and looking for an aircraft to fire at. "It's all right. That's ours!" someone shouted, and back we went to bed.
"They woke us up at about ten o'clock and gave us a meal, the first decent meal many of us had eaten for days. They then gave us a pass to go to the pictures in Aldershot to ease our minds. When we came back, we had to write a letter to home to say we were all right. The next day we were ordered to Rotherham, where a small group of us stayed with a family; the manager of a scrap firm, his wife and two children."
When they got to Rotherham they were given a forty-eight hour pass. Within this time my father had to travel to Pontypridd, spend some time with his wife and family and get back to Rotherham. Not exactly a great deal of time to recover from what was an exhausting and in many ways a harrowing experience. They stayed there for a couple of weeks and then went back to join their battalion at Blyton.
So ended my father's war on mainland Europe. It had lasted less than nine months. While his unit hadn't won any great battles, their rear-guard actions on the way back from the river Dyle, retreating 140 miles on foot under fire all the way, and especially the counter attack into Bergues, were in their own way heroic. The serious fighting had lasted just three weeks. What he hadn't realised at the time was that the boat which brought him back to England was one of the last to make the trip. He could quite easily have spent much more time on the mainland as a guest of the German Army. As it was he had brought four of his six man unit back with him. Pat Riley and a young chap called Price had been killed in action on the way back to Dunkirk. Those who survived Dunkirk were later posted to Africa and two of them lost their lives in the African campaign.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.