- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Daniel John Osborne
- Location of story:
- Amiens, France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 November 2005
ACTION OF THE 7th BATTALION THE ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT B.E.F. MAY 1940.
This is an account of the action seen by the 7th Battalion - Royal Sussex Regiment [RSR] at Abbeville, France during May 1940. The information in this account has been compiled from my own memories of that time and that of surviving officers and soldiers who told me their recollections after the war.
In the second week of May 1940, the German Army Group ‘A’ broke through at Sedan in the Ardennes in their advance to the channel ports. To meet this threat, the order was given to the G.H.Q. reserve troops of the B.E.F. to proceed to Abbeville. This order affected the 6th and 7th Battalions of the RSR.
In the late hours of 17th May 1940, the Rifle Companies of the 6th Battalion RSR boarded a troop train at Abancourt and the Rifle Companies of the 7th Battalion RSR boarded another troop train at Buchy further down the line.
I was one of the lorry drivers left behind at the 7th Battalion HQ Company. Also remaining were the M.T. personnel, D.R.s, Mortar men, Signals and Admin men, a total of 201 men.
The 6th Battalion RSR train was ready to move off first but owing to a derailment of a wagon immediately in front of the train it was delayed. As a result, the train carrying the 7th Battalion RSR was diverted on to the up line, thereby passing the train of its sister Battalion and altering the line of the march. The line was eventually cleared and at 00:56 hrs the train carrying the 6th Battalion RSR, the rear details of the 2nd/6th and the 2nd 7th Battalions - The Queens Regiments, the 264 Company - The Royal Engineers and the 182 Field Ambulance Company pulled out of the station. By now the train was a considerable distance behind the train carrying its sister Battalion of the 7th Battalion RSR.
Around 14:00 hrs, on the 18th May 1940, the train carrying the 7th Battalion RSR stopped at St Roche station, a mile outside of Amiens, which was unfortunate as it coincided with a severe air raid on Amiens by the Germans. German bomber pilots had always selected troop trains as priority targets and consequently the Stuka J.U.87’s bombed the train. One bomb fell on the engine tender and another on the first coach which contained all the Officers. The bombing of the train effectively prevented any further movement northwards. The Regiments had been ordered to Abbeville and at the last moment the orders had been changed and they were to proceed to Lens, near Arras.
In the bombing, eight Officers were killed and some were wounded, including the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin. He ordered the Battalion to de-train and to withdraw some 700 yards to the North of the railway as he felt that it would be safer to have the men deployed until the line was cleared. Later he moved the men to higher ground in case the Stuka dive bombers returned, which they did at 16:00 hrs and bombed the train again. After the first raid, rescue parties had been organized and the killed and injured were removed from the train. The number of casualties, including the eight Officers killed, was eighty. Of the 581 men that boarded the train at Buchy, the remaining 501 men now took up defensive positions each side of the Poix to Rouen road. The ground they occupied was ‘rising’ ground, slightly wooded with some farm buildings and a few hedgerows breaking up the open ground. Here the Battalion waited, not expecting any direct confrontation.
Just after 17:00 hrs, the train bearing the 6th Battalion RSR approached St Roche station but as an air raid was in progress the train was stopped. When the raid had ceased, the train was switched to the up line and passed through the station. The men of the 6th Battalion RSR saw the damaged train, but did not connect it with that of their sister Battalion. Their train then proceeded into the marshalling yards.
Later the 6th Battalion RSR train started off again and it was soon discovered that the track ahead had been severely damaged and no further progress would be possible for some time. The local authorities therefore decided that the train should return through Amiens and be switched on to a siding at Ailly-sur-Noye to await further orders. The 6th Battalion RSR train then went on to Paris and then on to Nantes and St Nazaire where the men were engaged in stacking petrol and stores until 17th June 1940.
Since it was assumed that all units would have taken but a short time to arrive at their destinations, little in the way of rations had been brought other than the unexpired portion of the day’s ration (2 slices of bread and a piece of cheese per man). It was now evident that the halt of the 7th Battalion RSR at Amiens might be prolonged, so Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin sent a foot party into the city to try to get some supplies. The foot party was unsuccessful but by good fortune Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin was able to contact the supply centre at Saleux and at 03:00 hrs the following morning, 19th May 1940, a number of Lorries arrived, bringing sufficient supplies for his needs. Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin also tried to contact Brigade Headquarters (37th INF Brigade) 12th Division (East) to obtain further orders, but to no avail; however he did learn that the enemy could be expected to enter the city of Amiens at any moment. The 7th Battalion RSR was now cut off from Divisional H.Q., Brigade H.Q. and the 6th Battalion RSR was very isolated as there were no other troops in the area. Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin, not being able to contact any Headquarters and obtain further orders, decided that he must remain in his present position.
At 16:00 hrs on 19th May 1940 the enemy appeared and gave battle until 18:00 hrs when they disengaged, and overnight regrouped and made good his losses.
At 03:00 hrs on 20th May 1940, the enemy re-appeared, coming from the east. A column of motorized infantry accompanied by tanks approached the positions of the 7th Battalion RSR. Their positions had previously been detected and noted by German spotter planes. The Germans had decided that it was essential to eliminate this possible threat to their advance. The enemy troops were the German Army Group "A" commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt. It consisted of 44 Infantry Divisions, 7 Armoured Divisions and 3 Motorized Divisions.
It should be remembered that the 7th Battalion RSR, in common with all Battalions of 12th Division, had very few arms. Each man carried a Rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition and their experience of handling these was very limited. The Battalion’s supply of ammunition was minimal as no effort had been made by their Divisional Staff to ensure that they were properly equipped before they were sent into battle. Nevertheless the men of the 7th Battalion RSR engaged the enemy as if they were a well founded Battalion. The enemy was quite unaware of the weakness of the force against them. From behind every bit of cover these gallant but doomed men fought their one-sided battle. A lucky shot from one of the few anti tank rifles put a tank out of action. This caused the enemy to become wary. The German Infantry deployed both heavy mortars and a battery of field artillery was bought into action to add to the deluge of shells being poured out by the encircling tanks. Against the might of the enemy, the 7th Battalion RSR had 6 Boyes anti-tank rifles with 32 rounds in total and 10 Bren guns. The ammunition was soon expended; there was no reserve, they had no mortars and no artillery support or signals platoon to help them. When the fire from the 7th Battalion RSR slackened, the enemy was reluctant to advance for the kill, so they called up the Stuka U.U.87 Dive Bombers to help them. However the outcome was never in doubt. As the afternoon wore on the casualties increased, and finally at 20:00 hrs with every round fired, the survivors reluctantly surrendered.
Of the 581 men of all the Companies that had left Buchy on 18th May 1940, only 70 men survived to be taken into captivity. Not even during the murderous engagements on the Somme or at Paschendaele in World War I had any unit suffered such casualties. But their sacrifice had not been in vain: it so discouraged the enemy from penetrating southwards that it had saved their sister Battalion the 6th Battalion RSR from a similar fate and that of a Moroccan Regiment that was not far off. Of those men taken into captivity, the Adjutant of the Battalion, a Major Cassels, had refused to raise his arms in surrender and was promptly shot.
During the action Sergeant Glover (Carriers) shot down two Stuka Dive Bombers with a Bren gun. He would have had three, but in the confusion of battle he forgot to remove the safety catch and the target had passed by the time he had realized. The 7th Battalion RSR had delayed the advance of the German Army Group ‘A’ for a total of 21 hours.
Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin was taken prisoner by Oberleutnant Gerhard Richter who in due course delivered him to his commanding officer Major General Erwin Rommel. Rommel was commanding the 7th Panzer Division, a section of which had been detailed to eliminate the threat posed by the 7th Battalion RSR.
All the men captured at St Roche (70) served a total of 5 years at the German P.O.W. camp, Stalag XX "A", at a place called Torun in Poland, and when the war was over they had to walk a distance of 1300 miles back into Germany to get repatriated. All the 430 men killed at St Roche (Amiens) now lay buried in the Military Cemetery at Abbeville, row upon row of them.
After the destruction of the 7th Battalion RSR on the 20th May 1940, the Germans continued their advance and on 21st May 1940 took Abbeville. This action succeeded in cutting in half the main and rear armies of the B.E.F. and its supply routes. On 23rd May 1940, the B.E.F. was officially placed on half rations. Having captured Abbeville, the Germans turned north to close the trap between Abbeville and Dunkirk. The 51st Highland Division was caught in this trap and they fought on until they had run out of ammunition and supplies. On 12th June 1940, they were forced to surrender.
Their Commanding Officer General Fortune and some 7,000 men were taken prisoner and they also served 5 years in a German P.O.W. camp in Poland.
During the night of the 18th May 1940, three men slipped away from their comrades. Whether they were ordered to do this or if they did it on their own accord could not he ascertained? The fact is that they got back to Abancourt where the remainder of the 7th Battalion RSR was waiting for further orders. The three men told us what had happened to the rest of the Battalion owing to the bombing of the train with the casualties. No mention was made of any action, as that did not occur until 16:00 hrs on the 19th May 1940 after they had left.
The original arrangements had been made for the 6th and 7th Battalion RSR to collect their transport from the motor pool just outside Rouen and to collect their other equipment and to proceed to Abbeville to meet the Rifle Companies of their Battalions. As the orders were changed at the last minute and their destination being altered to proceed to Lens and with the 7th Battalion RSR already destroyed, the order for transport collection was cancelled.
'The H.Q. Company men left at Abancourt discovered on rising on the morning of 21st May 1940 that every unit in the area had evacuated including the N.A.A.F.I . Staff. Now the remainder of the 7th Battalion RSR was alone. For five days the men took up defensive positions and carried out five patrols daily in the area, made road blocks and kept a watchful eye on the streams of refugees that were passing through. It was known that German soldiers were infiltrating among them.
On the 5th night they left Abancourt, travelling light, throwing away all unnecessary kit. After two days of marching and riding in cattle trucks (that the cattle had just left) moving south, we arrived at a small village called Thoire near Le Mans. After three days there, the only rations available were tinned food looted from the N.A.A.F.I. At 18:00 hrs on 31st May 1940, they were listening to the B.B.C. News, when the news reader said that "All the troops of the B.E.F. were now safely home on British shores". But there were still some 200 men those that remained of the original 781 men of 7th Battalion RSR.
At 02:00 hrs on 1st June 1940, they started to march to Cherbourg. Arriving at the dock area at 11:00 hrs, the men rested, lying on the pavements and falling asleep. About 12:00 hrs a Southern Railway Passenger Ferryboat, the Prince of Wales came into the harbour and docked at the jetty. The men were rallied and boarded the ferryboat, which then made its way across the Channel unescorted. On the way across, the men were given a meal which consisted of a one pound tin of corned beef and a packet of 12 oatmeal biscuits shared between groups of six men. After landing at Southampton they boarded a train and travelled the rest of the day, all night, and most of the next day until they were finally billeted in the village hall and scouts hut in the mining village of Greenside near Blaydon, Northumberland. They stayed for a month before getting seven days of leave to go home.
In 1949 Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin received a letter from Oberleutnant Richter in which the writer expressed his admiration for the fighting qualities of the 7th Battalion RSR. The German war diaries for 20th May 1940 state that the enemy (the 7th Battalion RSR) had held tenaciously to its positions.
In 1956 the 7th Battalion RSR was awarded the “Amiens 1940” Battle Honour for the stand it made at St Roche and to this day not one man of the 7th Battalion RSR has received a medal for bravery or devotion to duty in the face of, and against, such hopeless odds on 20th May 1940.
On 20th May 1986, a reunion of some of the survivors of the battle at St Roche visited the cemetery at Abbeville and St Roche station where a plaque dedicated to the 7th Battalion RSR was fixed to the wall of the booking hall. On entering Amiens they were welcomed with opened arms. The dining room of the hotel where their lunch was arranged was hung with orange and blue drapes, the Regimental Colours of the Royal Sussex Regiment. The white painted wooden cross and poppy-wreath taken to Abbeville by the survivors are now in a place of honour in a glass case in Amiens town hall.
Since the visit of the survivors in 1980, the Mayor of Amiens has formed a memorial fund and enough money had been collected erect a magnificent granite cross war memorial on the site where the men of the 7th Battalion - Royal Sussex Regiment fell. The memorial stands in the centre of ornamental gardens with flower beds of red, white and blue flowers. It must have cost the people of Amiens thousands and thousands of Francs for this memorial and I hope one day to be able to go back and see this memorial and visit the graves of my fallen comrades.
I am proud to have been a soldier with the 7th Battalion - Royal Sussex Regiment.
Private D.J. OSBORNE.
7th Battalion - Royal Sussex Regiment
37th Infantry Brigade
12th Division (Eastern) B.E.F.
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