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The 4th Battalion, The Border Regiment in WW2

by BBC Cumbria Volunteer Story Gatherers

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
BBC Cumbria Volunteer Story Gatherers
People in story: 
Mr Hutchinson, General Archibald Wavell, Brigadier Orde Wingate, General Irwin Rommel.
Location of story: 
4th Battalion, The Border Regiment / 23rd Brigade / 1st Armoured Division / 70th Infantry Division
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A8714388
Contributed on: 
21 January 2006

Introduction

The following article has been submitted to the BBC "People's War" website on behalf of Mr Hutchinson. It deals with the experiences of the 4th Battalion The Border Regiment during World War Two.

Mr Hutchinson has written the article which was then sent it in to BBC Radio Cumbria, Carlisle. It has been transcribed and submitted to the website by Joseph Ritson, a volunteer story-gatherer with the BBC Radio Cumbria CSV Action Desk. The terms of the BBC “People’s War” website have been read and understood.

Fighting on in France in 1940 after Dunkirk

"Now little remembered, regarded and even by-passed in the history of the time, there were men who fought on in France after the main force of the B.E.F. were evacuated. Two whole Divisions, plus many lines of communications and troops were drawn into battle with the Germans. The fighting took place in Picardy, Artois and finally in Normandy.

The two Divisions were the 51st Highland Division and the 1st Armoured Brigade. Line of Communication troops were brigaded together as infantry to act as support to those two Divisions.

One of these brigades of infantry was named the 23rd Brigade and attached to the 1st Armoured Division. Part of the new brigade was the 4th Battalion The Border Regiment. This was a regimental formation of men drawn from the towns and villages of Cumberland and Westmorland: Carlisle, Penrith, Keswick, Grasmere, Longtown, Brampton, Hexham, Alston and many others. The HQ of the battalion was in Kendal, then in Westmorland.

The 4th Borders go into action

Moving out from the Brittany towns of Brest, Morlaix and St Malo, and then finally arriving at Aumale, the 4th Border was allotted the task of capturing three bridges west of Amiens on the River Somme. So, following in the footsteps of their fathers and uncles of the Great War, the men of Cumberland and Westmorland went down to the battle alongside the Queen's Bays of the 2nd Armoured Brigade.

The date of the first contact with the enemy was early on the morning of 24th May 1940. This was the old date for 'Empire Day'. The early dawn mist gave way to brilliant unclouded weather as the tanks and infantry moved to the attack.

Mixed fortunes followed: one company was ambushed before they reached their objective and scattered. Another of the companies reached the north bank of the Somme and were engaged in mortar machine gun and rifle exchanges with the Germans. The third company reached their allotted bridge, crossed to the east bank and drove off the enemy. The fighting continued all day in the beautiful spring day until nightfall when all the companies withdrew, taking numbers of prisoners with them.

The battle continues

Next day the force moved North to regroup. Under orders from the 10th French Army Commander, the 4th Border moved North-West to the line of the River Bresle. Here in the Basse Forêt d'Eu, supported by the artillery of the 51st Highland Division. The 4th Battalion of the Borders were given the task of clearing the woods that were partially held by the Germans. They were also given the task of relieving the Black Watch Battalion who were in the village of Incheville.

Fighting in the Forest continued for two days in support of the 5th Sherwood Foresters. There were varying degrees of success. Finally, while still holding Incheville with 'D Company', the Borders and Foresters were driven back, suffering casualties from heavy German mortaring and shelling.

'D Company' held on to Incheville for several days until they ran short of ammunition. By then, they were surrounded. Many men from 'D Company' of the Borders were killed or captured. There were so many that the newspapers at home dubbed Kendal, the hometown of most of them, 'The Town of Missing Men'.

After withdrawal, the Unit moved Northwards, their lines of communication being constantly dive-bombed by the Germans. At first they headed towards Dieppe. But then, on hearing that Rouen had fallen into enemy hands, Fécamp became the destination. Now, with some air cover, the Battalion reached the shelter of woods on the outskirts of that town, 'Radio Normandie' being situated there.

Soon, in the middle of recuperation from the long and arduous journey, enemy tanks appeared on the ridge above the woods. Moving off into the town street fighting began. Alongside the Borders were the 4th 'Buffs' who ran into bombardment in the streets of Fécamp. It was believed that this was the infantry of the 7th German Panzers. As darkness fell and both battalions having prevented the German attempt at encirclement, they moved out on the road to Goderville and finally to the woods and port of Le Havre.

A Farewell to France

During that night, and still under constant harassment, embarkation took place on to ships and Naval craft. Exhausted, the 4th Battalion of the Border Regiment set sail. Most of the men were in deep slumber and in the morning, they found themselves in Cherbourg, where they disembarked to move inland and await further orders.

After some delay, the 4th Battalion left the port and moved to Rennes by rail. Then, after yet another railway journey, this time at night, they arrived at Brest. From Brest, they went by ship to Southampton, where they arrived on the morning of June 18th 1940.

A role in the Middle East

Subsequently, in March 1941, the men of the 4th Battalion, The Border Regiment left on the troopship H.M.T. 'Orontes' bound for Suez. Disembarking, they moved to El Quassasin by rail. From there, they went by troop camels up the desert to Sidi Barrani.

After being earmarked for support in General Archibald Wavell's offensive 'Battleaxe' the next departure was for the Syrian campaign. Occupying the village of Kiam in the central sector, the battalion were engaged in patrolling. These patrols included the entering of the Vichy French village of Mergyioun and taking prisoners. During the daylight hours, shelling of the British positions in Raschid-el-Fokkar was continuous. But then at night, the Australian artillery returned the compliment tenfold!

By now part of the 6th British Division, the 4th Battalion of the Border Regiment were moved back to the Western Desert. In October 1941, they were taken by destroyer to Tobruk. Here, the 6th British Division was relieving the Australians who had been besieged there since the previous April and who had inflicted the very first defeat of German arms on land.

During the siege, after being the Western Desert Force the Division became the 70th British Division. It was the only British Division of infantry in the Middle East at the time.

The 4th Borders at Tobruk

Bombing and shelling here in Tobruk became the daily and nightly ‘portion’. But even so, the fighting patrols still went out, many of them at night. There was much suffering but also much success, including the taking of many prisoners.

When the ’breakout’ came, more aggressive raids began, until they were relieved by the Polish Carpathian Division. The whole of the 70th Division became engaged in the fighting on Sidi Rezagh and El Duda. On the retreat of the German / Italian Forces, the 4th Battalion The Border Regiment occupied the airfield of El Adem.

It had been from this airfield of El Adem that the garrison of Tobruk had suffered the attentions of the Luftwaffe dive-bombers almost daily. So, all the units of the 70th Division were glad to take the airfield. The relief of Tobruk, the capture of Sidi Rezegh and the capture of El Adem was thus the second defeat of the German land forces.

At this point I should mention that the 51st Regiment of the Royal Field Artillery, comprising of men from Carlisle and all over Cumberland were present during the whole of the siege. They were highly thought of by the Australian troops and the commander, General Leslie Morshead. So, men from Cumberland and Westmorland were present at both checks on Rommel and the German Afrika Corps!

An ending even further eastwards

Leaving the desert, the 70th Division, including the 4th Battalion The Border Regiment, were now went to India and Burma. They became part of Brigadier Orde Wingate’s ‘Chindit’ Long Range Penetration (LRP) groups. Her ended the war of the 4th Battalion, The Border Regiment.

With reference to the siege of Tobruk, I append a list of North Country Regiments below. At one time or another these units were part of the garrison:

1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (Machine Guns)
51st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
4th Durham Survey Section
[All the above were present throughout the siege]

1st Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry
4th Battalion, The Border Regiment
2nd Battalion, Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment
[All the above relieved the Australian infantry. They were part of the 70th British Infantry Division]".

Sources used for the above article

‘Tobruk’ by Frank Harrison [ISBN 1-85409-361-6]

War Diaries:

WO 169 / 1705 4th Battalion, The Border Regiment
WO 169 / 1737 1st Northumberland Fusiliers
WO 169 / 1713 Durham Light Infantry
WO 169 / 1454 51st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery

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Forum Archive

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Rennes Monday 17th June 1940

Posted on: 21 January 2006 by sgt_george

F.A.O. Mr Joseph Ritson.

Having read the contribution you have made on behalf of Mr Hutchinson I see a mention of a rail journey through Rennes and arrival in Southampton 18th June 1940 (Tuesday).
An uncle of mine was killed along with more than 800 others in an air attack on trains in Rennes, Monday 17th June. Please see my various contributions to this archive on the incident.
Historical records of events in France, post Operation Dynamo, are sketchy.
As there is as yet so much more to learn about incident I ask perchance does your Mr Hutchinson have any knowledge of that incident?
Any information would be much appreciated.
Regards,
David G.

 

Message 2 - Rennes Monday 17th June 1940

Posted on: 22 January 2006 by BBC Cumbria Volunteer Story Gatherers

Hello David (Sgt George),

Thanks for taking the time to read the article about the 4 Bn Borders in WW2 and your most interesting question.

Unfortunately for this account I do not have contact details for Mr Hutchinson personally. He wrote out this contribution out long hand and sent it to Radio Cumbria. As I am a volunteer story-gatherer, and no doubt because I have done some research about the war in France, I was asked to type it out and post it to the website.

I've left a message for Jemma, the co-ordinator for the Radio Cumbria volunteer story gatherers, asking for your question to be passed on to Mr Hutchinson, and if he has further details. The problem at this time is that there is only just over a week before the site is closing down for furter postings! Anyway, we can but try!

In the meantime, I've had a look through your postings, and also the CWGC website about their cemetery at Rennes. I know a little about the period and the Brittany area slightly, but not to the fine detail that you are seeking, David. I've just looked through some of my notes and various books in French and English to refresh my memory of what went on. The days 16 - 18 June 1940 were really vital to what happened in France, because it was when De Gaulle was trying to get the French Government to continue fighting the war, and Pétain took over and asked the Germans for an Armistice.

All the RAF and British troops were tehn withdrawn, and there was this mad dash to get to the ports. This was when your uncle would have been ordered to leave. The Luftwaffe harassed the evacuation which is when your uncle was unfortunately killed. It was also atthis time that the 'Lancastria' was hit.

Exactly how many were killed in this evacuation I am unsure, but all together, with the Lancastria, other ships and on the trains it must have been 2000+. You should be able to get hold of a book in English entitled 'Finest Hour' by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig (1999), Hodder & Stoughton. Have a look at pages 181-187. It mentions that Churchill and the Ministry of Information kept the disaster of this evacuation quiet at that time. The day after Churchill gave his 'Finest Hour' speech and De Gaulle his 'Appeal' to the French: for the war to continue.

There seems to be some accounts in the Public Records Office about what happened. But knowing what is there and what to ask for is not easy. You might also try writing to (or visiting) the Town Hall in Rennes and asking what records they might have. There is usually someone locally at these places who will know everything that happened! Again, the problem is finding the right person.

Anyway, I hope this helps you, David. The best of luck to you, and thanks again!.

J. Ritson

 

Message 3 - Rennes Monday 17th June 1940

Posted on: 24 January 2006 by sgt_george

Hello Joseph,
Thank you for your detailed reply to my query and I await any further information. I am aware WW2 People’s War is soon to close for contributions. My email address is david05803@yahoo.co.uk and I would really appreciate any information to that address post the closure.
Obtaining information from official sources seems to be quite difficult. It appears the British authorities at the time suppressed news of those left behind while, for understandable propaganda reasons, playing up the relative success of Operation Dynamo. Personal information on file in military records on individual soldiers is only available to the soldier himself or to next of kin. It would be almost impossible for me to source documentary evidence of kinship to my grand-uncle George.
However I have been to Rennes, visited his grave and spoke to some local people. An account of the visit is contributed to WW2 People’s War. I sourced a 1960 local newspaper article, in French, which gives the best account of June 1940 events in Rennes that I have so far found. There appears to have been strict censorship in operation at the time.
The railway complex at Rennes was bombed during mid morning Monday 17th June. This would have prevented later train traffic. The Lancastria was sunk during the afternoon of same day. It would seem reasonable therefore to assume your Mr. Hutchinson and his comrades transited through Rennes shortly before. The German invaders over-ran Rennes on Tuesday 18th June and currently I have an account of their initial arrival and occupation in translation. I will try to have it completed for contribution in advance of the imminent closure.
Thanks again for your reply and interest, you have been most helpful.
Regards,
David G.

 

Message 4 - Rennes Monday 17th June 1940

Posted on: 27 January 2006 by BBC Cumbria Volunteer Story Gatherers

Hello David,

We haven't had a message back from Mr Hutchinson yet I'm afraid. However, as I was in the Cumbria Archives Office today I went to check a reference book I knew was in there with a little about 4th Border Regiment in WW2 ('The Story of the Border Regiment' by Philip J. Shears). While it isn't strictly what you are looking for I thought it might shed a little more light on it.

Indeed, there is a little about this period in the book, which must also be based on the War Diaries and personal testimony only a couple of yearas after the end of the war. Unfortunately, this book doesn't specifically mention the train incident that your uncle lost his life. The 4th Border lads were split into 2 groups and didn't meet up until they got back into Britain. The 4th Border group that took the train was headed by Captain J.L. Burgess. I think he was one of the Burgess newspaper family so he may have written his memoirs somewhere.

I know what you mean about the problems of getting information, David, when you are not either the person who served in the Forces or their Next of Kin. To be perfectly honest, until this last year when I have been a volunteer story-gatherer for this "People's War" project, most of the WW2 research I have done has been in France, and a little bit in Belgium and the Netherlands. Over in Europe it seems a lot easier finding out official information about the war and commemoration is taken very seriously.

My feeling is that someone in the Rennes area will have researched the people who died on 17 June. I only know a little about that area and that incident, but if 'Ouest France' has featured the story, then I am sure there must be many details available about what happened. If you can find these people I am sure they will share it with you as a relative. If your French is rusty that might be a problem, but it can be overcome. Often for this kind of enquiry I've asked at the Town Hall and someone there can usually know where to start or who to contact.

If I get a better reply I've got your e-mail and I will send a message to you that way. In any case, I hope you find out what happened.

Best wishes,
Joseph Ritson

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