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Contributed by 
Southampton Reference Library
People in story: 
Major R D Lake DSO
Location of story: 
Rouen, Cherbourg
Article ID: 
A4217924
Contributed on: 
20 June 2005

After the fall of France, one contingent of soldiers stationed in Rouen had to fight their way across France.
Starting on 19th May, 1940, a 12 mile line of Britons with only 300 rifles had to hold the line. So steel helmets were placed on sandbags and tent poles turned into guns. Several soldiers ran up and down the trench firing from different positions. And this line was held for 20 days by Beauman's Division, consisting of approximately 800 men. They were constantly bombed and harassed by the advancing Germans whilst the Germans were trying to assess their strength.
On the 8th June D Company faced by German tanks managed to escape to a riverside village which was in flames. The Batallion Commander set out to rescue C Company. At one stage guns from tanks opened fire, his car was wrecked, but they all got to the river without loss. In the meanwhile one of the other soldiers opened a gate and from a barn a small car and 2 motor cycles rushed out: no one got hurt.
Meantime Headquarters Company had been creeping through a forest held by the Germans, only aided by a small compass, and had reached the river. The ferry started to ferry them across then refused to carry on, so one of Newcombe's Rifles swam across, put the Captain under guard and the ferry started up again. They all managed to cross the river and on 19th June embarked at Cherbourg with 22 Officers, 310 other Ranks, together with 29 antitank rifles and 15 bren guns.
Major Lake's daughter remembers waiting for news at her Army school, which had been evacuated from Bath to Longleat, and has preserved a well-worn newpaper clipping from the Daily Mail of July 12 1940 telling the story.
Major Lake, who had recived the DSO in the First World War, was mentioned in despatches in the London Gazette on the 20th December 1940

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Message 1 - Re: Dummy men and guns

Posted on: 20 June 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

This is an interesting story of bravery in France in 1940. However, there is some confusion regarding 'divisions' and 'battalions'.

You say that "Starting on 19th May, 1940, a 12 mile line of Britons with only 300 rifles had to hold the line." This was not the case, on that date there were many division in the line, including, for example, the 51st Highland Division.

A check of the London Gazette for 20 December shows that Major R. D. Lake DSO was in the Northhamptonshire Regiment and was mentioned in dispatches along with twenty-two other officers and men of that regiment. Unfortunately the Gazette does not show which battalions they were in. The Nothamptons had two battalions in France, 2nd and 5th. On 21 May 1940, 5th Battalion Northamtons were on the Escaut Front with 1st East Surreys and 2nd Lancs Fusiliers in 11 Brigade (just one of sixteen infantry brigades in seven divisions, forming I, II, and III Corps on the Escaut Front). I mentioned them first because they took the brunt of the German assault. The 2nd Battalion Northamptons was in the 5th Infantry Division, and these were brought up to the line on 28 May. At this stage Beauman Division did not exist.

Brigadier A. B. Beauman was responsible on the operational side for all depots and installations in the rear area. But during the debacle, and acting on his own initiative, he armed all rearguard specialist troops and formed "Beauforce" on 18 May, at this stage it was a small mobile defensive force along the rivers Andelle and Béthune, covering Dieppe and Rouen from the east. On 31 May this small force was augmented considerably and formed into a division "Beauman Division", with Brigadier Beauman promoted to Major-General. But far from being 800 men, the division initially consisted of an HQ (with supporting forces), three infantry brigades, a regiment of anti-tank guns, a battery of field artillery, and other divisional services. It was this improvised division and the 51st Highland infantry Division which fought rearguard actions in France before, during, and after the Dunkirk evacuation.

In the closing stages Beauman Division had seen bitter fighting and was, like the 51st Division, only a fraction of its initial strength, 'A' Brigade had been detached to 51st Division. and 'B' and 'C' Brigades were armed only with rifles when they withdrew across the Seine, 'B' Brigade crossing during the night of 8/9 June. It is at this late stage that remnants of other stranded battalions, such as the Northamptons would have joined them.

You say that "On the 8th June D Company faced by German tanks managed to escape to a riverside village which was in flames." This is possibly Sotteville on the south-east bank of the Seine, opposite Rouen. If so the "forest held by the Germans", that you mention, is the Forêt de Roumare, facing, on the opposite bank of the Seine, the Forêt de la Londe. Sotteville was indeed in flames as German Messerschmitts had got through and bombed the main bridge, power station, railways, and factories, combining it with intensive strafing. The men desreved more than a mention in dispatches.

Regards,

Peter

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