- 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:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 January 2006
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]
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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