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Army: The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) - 1st Battalion

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20 January 2006

Information provided by: Regimental Headquarters
Part of: The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment)
First Published: 25 June 2004

Facts and figures

Unit name: 1st Battalion
Force: Army
Designation: Battalion
Type: Infantry


September 1939 - June 1940: France

On the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939 the 1st battalion was stationed in Dover. It went early to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), spending two months near Lens in Flanders close to the frontier with neutral Belgium, then a spell in part of the Maginot Line in the Saar, then back to Lens. Meanwhile the 51st Highland Division was being formed, composed entirely of territorial battalions including the 4th and 6th Black Watch. Under the command of General Victor Fortune, who had made a name for himself in the Black Watch on the Western Front in the First War, it arrived in France in January 1940 and took up positions on the Maginot line. Churchill thought it needed ‘strengthening’ with some regular units, so the 1st Battalion took the place of the 6th, which went to the 4th Division. Serious military action only began on 13 May 1940 after the Germans opened their full scale attack both on the Maginot Line and through Belgium. The 1st Battalion managed to hold its position and even take some prisoners. The Germans then concentrated their efforts further west, and 51st Division was switched to the area between the mouth of the river Somme and Dieppe. On 28 May the 1st Battalion was involved in an attempt to reduce the bridgehead the Germans had secured over the river at Abbeville. It was alongside the French armoured division commanded by General de Gaulle, who later said that the comradeship then forged between his division and the 51st ‘played its part in the decision which I took to continue fighting on the side of the Allies’. However, the French division was then transferred to another sector, leaving the 51st with only the light armour of the Lothian and Border Horse Reconnaissance Regiment. The next German assault on 5 June forced the division to begin a withdrawal. The 1st Battalion had a difficult time withdrawing from its position near Abbeville, with orders and counter orders following each other in quick succession, no proper maps, and under frequent German attack. Finally on 11 June it reached the outskirts of St Valéry and prepared to defend it while evacuation was arranged. Many losses were suffered that night as the fog closed in and made it impossible for the navy to send in ships to take off the troops. Next morning General Fortune, realising that further fighting would serve no useful purpose, surrendered his division to the opposing General Rommel, and the 1st Battalion went into captivity.

June 1942 - December 1942: North Africa

After the capture of the 51st Highland Division at St Valéry in June 1940 it was decided to reconstitute it in the UK around a nucleus provided by the 9th Scottish Division. Less than thirty members of the old 1st Battalion were available, but it was rebuilt and joined by the 5th and 7th Battalions which had not yet gone overseas. This newly formed division sailed for Egypt in June 1942 and arrived via the Cape of Good Hope, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal two months later, more or less simultaneously with Generals Alexander and Montgomery. The desert offensive of the previous year had failed to remove the Germans from North Africa, and now Rommel was again advancing against Egypt. At 9.40pm on 23 October the Battle of Alamein opened with a huge artillery barrage along a front of some 50 miles (80km). All three Black Watch battalions were in the van of the opening attack, advancing close behind the barrage through wire and minefields and in the face of machine gun and rifle fire. By dawn next day all their first objectives had been secured, albeit with heavy casualties. The 1st battalion, in 154 Brigade with the 7th Battalion, was withdrawn from the front on 3 November and for the next five weeks was part of the force pursuing the retreating Germans beyond Benghazi and Tobruk but not in direct contact with them until 8 December at the village of Mersa Brega on the coastal road. Together with the 7th battalion it was put in to try to circle round this village and cut the road beyond. This operation was successful, although many casualties were suffered from the mines laid by the Germans to cover their retreat

15 Jan 1943 - April 1943: North Africa

The next close contact with the enemy was on 15 January 1943 at Buerat, when again there were casualties from artillery and mines as the Germans withdrew. Two days later the harbour at Benghazi suffered severe damage from gales, thus threatening the supply line, and it became vital to press on to Tripoli, over 100 miles (160km) further on, as fast as possible in order to secure another port through which supplies could be brought. All went reasonably well until on the 19th the advance of 51st Division along the coastal road was halted by a strongly defended feature on high ground which was promptly named ‘Edinburgh Castle’. After a first failed attempt next morning by a fighting patrol supported by tanks to open up a route round this, it was decided that the 1st Battalion would try to capture it next night. Yet again the enemy decided not to stand and fight, and the battalion was able to enter the ‘Castle’ without opposition. Tripoli was successfully occupied two days later. The Germans had now withdrawn to a strong defensive position centred on Mareth, just inside Tunisia, where the Matmata Hills left only a narrow passage, blocked by the Wadi Zigzaou, between them and the sea through which to advance north towards Tunis. Contact was made with the enemy in mid February near Medenine. On 6 March the Germans attacked and the 1st Battalion was nearly overrun; but that night the enemy decided to withdraw again. An assault by 50th Division across the Wadi Zigzaou towards Mareth failed. The 4th Indian Division was sent on a flanking movement through the Matmata Hills to the west, and on 23 March the 1st Battalion was amongst units which took over from 50th Division on the south side of the Wadi, ready to go into the attack. On the 26th it was found that the enemy had withdrawn, and next day the 1st Battalion was among the troops which marched into the town of Gabes. The next obstacle 15 miles (24km) ahead on the advance towards Tunis was Wadi Akarit between the coast and Roumana Ridge, which had to be taken before there could be any further advance. On 6 April 152 Brigade succeeded in taking the southern end of this ridge, but the attack on the northern end was held up at the base. The 1st Battalion was ordered up to help, but during the night was pulled back about a mile. Next morning it was found that once again the Germans had slipped away north. The battalion fought no more battles in this theatre.

May 1943 - October 1943: Sicily

Early in May, after the cessation of all fighting in Tunisia, the battalion was moved to Djidjelli in Algeria to be trained in amphibious landings, which were eventually made on the coast of Sicily on 10 July, landing just west of Pachino Point, the southernmost tip of the island. The few Italians there quickly surrendered and on the subsequent advance inland no enemy were met until, four days later, Germans were found in possession of the small towns of Francafonte and Vizzini some 50 miles (80km) inland. Vizzini is perched on top of a hill and there was no way to get round it. Two companies of 5th Battalion succeeded in overcoming some fairly fierce resistance and by nightfall, with some losses, they were in possession. Unfortunately, however, the success signal was interpreted by an artillery unit as a call for help and the 1st Battalion, which had been waiting to help if required, suffered quite heavy casualties from ‘friendly fire’. Next was the advance across the Catanian Plain towards Paterna at the foot of Mount Etna. The river Dittaino was crossed with little difficulty, but then resistance was met at Gerbini, a small hamlet with a railway station, some barracks on a ridge in front of the station and an airfield to the east. During the night of 18 July the 1st Battalion took up a position on the road south of the ‘village’ in front of an anti-tank ditch. On the night of the 20th a full scale attack was mounted on the barracks, which was found to be unoccupied. But the battalion was then swept off the ridge in a fierce counter attack, and the decision was taken to withdraw behind the river Dittaino. The 5th Battalion had been able to get across the river further to the north west, and a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders then took the village of Sferro, where the 1st Battalion relieved them in what by then had become a static front. It then became imperative to capture the Sferro Hills to the north to make it possible for Canadian and American troops to attack and take Adrano on the west of Mount Etna. The battalion was one of the units which attacked just before midnight on the 31st. Strong opposition was met and severe casualties suffered, but the Germans eventually withdrew. After this there were no more than minor skirmishes on the advance north, the campaign being virtually over when the Americans entered Messina on 14 August. The 51st Division crossed to the Italian mainland on 8 September, but six weeks later was shipped back to the UK, eventually to take part in the D-Day operations in Normandy and beyond.

06 Jun 1944 - May 1945: D-Day and beyond

After its return to the UK in September 1943 the battalion remained there in training for the invasion of France. The 5th Battalion was the first of the Black Watch units to land in Normandy, north of Caen, in the late afternoon of D-day, 6 June 1944. The 1st Battalion sailed from Tilbury on the 9th and on the 19th came under heavy enemy shell and mortar fire in the Bois de Bavent, suffering many casualties. After the fall of Caen on 11 July, the battalion was engaged at different times and in different ways in the great push north to help the Americans close the Falaise Gap. The Seine was crossed on 31 August and the Highland Division had the great satisfaction on 2 September of being back in St Valéry where its predecessor had had to surrender in 1940. The battalion expected to be part of the battle to capture Le Havre but in the event there was very little resistance from the Germans and the battalion did not even have to engage in any fighting. Much the same followed at Dunkirk where the job of the battalion was to be part of the siege to force the German garrison into surrender. The siege was still in force on 7 October when it was withdrawn. After some skirmishing to force crossings of the River Maas in Holland it had an uncomfortable time in the low lying land between that river and the lower Rhine when the Germans opened the sluice gates higher up eventually forcing a withdrawal to higher land. On 8 February 1945 the battalion was one of those leading the attack into Germany itself through the Reichswald. For the next few weeks it was in almost continuous action of one sort or another, steadily gaining ground against Germans who tended to withdraw rather than fight, but who nevertheless inflicted many casualties with their artillery. It was pulled out of the line early in March to train for the crossing of the Rhine, which it did at 10.30pm on 22 March. The actual crossing met with little resistance on the ground but came under severe shelling. However there were some bitter battles to take the small towns beyond. On 30 March the Guards’ Armoured Division passed through the bridgeheads which had been secured and some rest was then possible. Some scrappy fighting followed on the way towards Bremen, but the crossing of the Rhine was the last major engagement before VE-day.

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