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France, 8 June 1940: 2nd BEF - 5th Battalion of The Highland Light Infantry

by john Savage

Contributed by 
john Savage
People in story: 
John Savage
Location of story: 
France, June 8th 1940.
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A1991496
Contributed on: 
08 November 2003

My name is John, I was with the 5th Battalion of The Highland Light Infantry in France on June 8th 1940. I was a member of H.Q ‘C’ Company and I was the C.Os orderly. There seems to be very little written about the 2nd B.E.F that landed in France, so I had to rely mostly on memory for this period.
There is one paragraph on page 27 of ‘Mountain and Flood’ by George Blake that does relate to this period but the information given is not correct, also The “London Gazette” of 20th December 1940 relating to this matter is not correct either. I was very upset when in 1999 I read what has been recorded about that time in France and that the D.C.M had been awarded. I hope it’s never to late to put the the records straight. I have written my autobiography,in long-hand,its never been published, it was written for my children and grandchildren to read and below is an extract from it relating to the above time....

.......H.Q took up position around the farm, seven platoon was
half a mile to the left, nine platoon half a mile to our right
and eight platoon to our rear. Four hundred yards in front of H.Q
position was a dense wood, the ground in front of us was
completely flat, no cover of any kind.
It was from this wood, the following day that the German
infantry made two frontal attacks. They were both repelled and
the Germans lost many lives that day.
The third attack came in the form of mortar bombs, they fell
short of the farmhouse and landed on the wounded or the dead
Germans lying in front of us. Eventually they hit their target.
The barn was the first to be hit and set on fire, then the
farmhouse took a direct hit. The Sergeant Major and about three
other ranks were inside at the time; I don’t know how many were
killed or wounded because we had to stay in our positions.
When the shelling stopped we knew the Germans would attack
again and they did. We opened fire the moment they came out of
the wood because they had a number of cattle in front of them and
the cattle moved much faster than the Germans, again they were
repelled.
The shelling started again, it must have been about 20.00
hours. Would they wait for darkness before attacking again? Would
this be a last man last bullet situation? It was not. They say
that God acts in mysterious ways, or was it the top brass who
decided we were fighting a losing battle and sent the Angel to
our rescue. He was not the type that had wings, he was more like
one of the Hells Angels. He came on wheels and rode his motor
cycle into the Farm area, skidded to a halt shouting,
“Who’s in charge”.
The CO. said “I am”
The message he gave the CO. was that the French were seeking
an armistice, the new orders are now Every man for himself.
It was unbelievable, we were so close to death or a prisoner
of war camp, now we had a choice, stay and fight or get the hell
out of it. The CO. decided on the latter. First he said the other
two platoons had to be warned, there was myself and one other
orderly still standing. I knew the position that seven platoon
had occupied, the other chap did not. So I went ( our only means
of transport, the cycle, was in the barn when the shell set it on
fire.) As I said before seven platoon were half a mile down the
road.
It was a lovely evening for a walk, but I ran most of the way.
It must have been near to 21:00 hours. It was still light, and
would be for another hour or so. I arrived at 7 platoons
position, but could not warn them because they were no longer
there. I could see boxes of ammo, mess tins, the anti-tank rifle
lying in the ditch, gas masks, webbing material, lots of litter,
but no dead or wounded. It looked like 7 platoon had it cushy,
they had not passed me on the farm road, so they must have gone
across country.
I can honestly tell you that I felt more scared at this moment
than when the Germans were attacking us. Maybe it was the feeling
of being alone, I was alone and out of breath. The half-mile had
taken it out of me, so leaning against the tree I lit a
cigarette. I did not have to think about what I was going to do
next, I knew what I was going to do, it was to get as far away
from the woods that were occupied by the Germans and I would not
be going back to the farm house.
I had seen the maps, I knew which way we had come, I knew the
direction I would travel and I knew I would catch up with the
remains of the company. I took to the fields, there was still a
lot of gunfire to be heard, I had been walking for about thirty
minutes and I was half way across a corn field when I heard the
machine gun firing. Bullets seemed to be whistling above my head.
Because the corn was only four feet high I ran the rest of the
way doubled up. I was heading for the cover of another wood. I
had almost reached it when I stumbled over what I knew was a
body, it grunted so I knew it was alive. It turned out to be one
of 7 platoon, he said that he was all right and that he was one
of the last to leave. He had been running across the field trying
to catch up with the rest of the platoon when machine-gun fire
started. He said he was going to stay in the field until dark
before he moved.
I asked him who had told 7 platoon to move. He said that a
dispatch rider had told the Lieutenant and he was now on his way
to warn the rest of the Company. So 7 platoon had been warned
before H.Q. The Lieutenant had the same idea as I had, which was
to take to the fields and keep one step ahead of the Germans.
The lads name was Peter, I am not certain of his surname but I
think it might have been ‘Moore’. I told him to follow me, he did
and we reached the safety of the woods. There was no more
gunfire.
Peter was quite willing to let me take the initiative. We were
ready to leave when we heard a noise; someone was approaching so
we hid behind some trees. The sun had gone down but it was still
light, we could hear voices. We also could hear the cracking of
twigs. It was not long before the owners of the voices came into
view. They wore British uniforms and there was three of them but
they had not seen us. We could have let them walk passed but
instead we stepped out from our cover and ordered them to reveal
their identities.
The shortest of the trio had three chevrons on the arms of his
tunic, the other two were private soldiers. We kept our rifles
pointing at them, we had heard stories of German troops wearing
British uniforms in order to penetrate behind our lines and
create havoc, so we were taking on chances.
The sergeant belonged to the same battalion as ourselves, he
said that he was a member of the intelligence section. His name
was Anderson a native of Glasgow. He new the answers to a number
of questions I put to him, I learned that before the War he was
employed by Glasgow Corporation Tramcars. Peter and I agreed that
he was who he said he was. The other two Lads with him had been
in a French Hospital, they belonged to the Pioneer corps and had
only met the Sergeant six hours previous.
I asked the sergeant why he had been on his own previous to
meeting the two others and he told me that his Officer had sent
him out on a reconnaissance patrol in order to locate German
positions. He was even more lost than the two Lads that were with
him.
I had no time for Sergeants, I did not trust them, they would
lie through their teeth in order to protect their chevrons. I
said to Peter, “lets go before it gets to dark, we have to get
out of the woods”.
It was then that Sgt. Anderson pulled out his revolver.
He said, “you are both coming with us, the more of us together
the better chance we have of staying alive”.
It was very lucky for him that he did not point his gun
directly at us, he only waved it in the air. My rifle was
pointing directly at his private parts. He was just trying to
demonstrate that he was the superior one amongst us. Remember in
a previous chapter I told you about ‘Harry’, he was the small
business man who set his own factory on fire and while starting
the fire he was shaking in his boots because he was dead scared.
Well Sergeant Anderson was not a small business man but he, like
Harry, was also dead scared.
I said to him, “ I don’t know where you are going but Peter
and I are going back to join our company”.
“We are going up to the front line to make contact and join
the first regiment we meet”, he replied.
I told him that if he kept going in the same direction the
first regiment he would meet would be wearing German uniforms and
that we had just left some of our lads dead or dying in a farm
now occupied by Germans, less than two miles away.
Peter and I were running away from the Germans and we knew
where they were. The wee Sgt. and his two men were also running
from the Germans only they did not know where the enemy was, so
they were like the three blind mice running around in circles and
if they kept going in the same direction they would loose more
than their tails.
I said, and I don’t know why I had not mentioned it before,
”you three men have not heard the latest news, France has packed
in, they are seeking an armistice with Germany. Our Brigade has
issued the order every man for himself”. I know which way the
rest of the company have gone and that is the way Peter and I are
going, so if any of you wish to come along then you are quite
welcome to do so. I had convinced them that I knew what I was
doing; now I had to prove it and find that road.
So we set off at a good steady pace. It was not long before we
were out in the open countryside. It was a bit lighter now that
we had left the woods behind us and I could see the land in front
of me and I knew exactly the way I was heading. It was slow going
looking for gaps in the hedgerows. Crossing the cornfields I saw
what I was looking for, an isolated farmhouse. I did not want to
make contact so I kept a good 200 yards to the left and decided
to use the lane in order to reach the main road.
Besides, it was getting to dark to be crossing fields. We reached
the end of the lane and were at the road I had been looking for.
It was deserted. Somewhere to our left was the German army and
our dead and wounded comrades. I wondered if the Germans had
stopped for the night and to bury their dead.
Sgt. Anderson tried once more to assert his authority by
suggesting that we should have two lads walking in front, himself
in the middle and two to his rear walking backwards. This was
dismissed as ludicrous (we did not have time for silly walks), we
had to put as many miles as possible between ourselves and the
Germans and our main aim was to catch up with the retreating
British Army.
There was still a lot of shell-fire to be heard and tracer
bullets could be seen streaking through the night sky. Most of it
was coming from the French side so someone was still showing a
bit of resistance. We covered about eight miles at a steady pace
then it was time to call a halt. The two lads with the sergeant
were not one hundred percent fit and they kept complaining, even
though they did not have rifles or ammunition to carry. I opened
a tin of corned beef and a packet of hard biscuits and shared
then with the others; they did not have any food. I also passed
around my cigarettes. The wee sergeant was a non-smoker, this led
me to believe that there must be something other than smoking
that stunted his growth.
During our eight mile trek we passed over the river Eure and a
number of farm houses that were well away from the road and
showed no sign of life. We did not stop to investigate, avoiding
trouble, not courting it. I could swear that we were on the right
road, I remember that we passed through some villages on the way
to the farm house and we should be reaching the first of these
soon.
We had rested for almost an hour, it was now 0300 hours on the
15th June and it was time to move on again. We came upon the
first of those villages that I mentioned previously. The whole
village was in darkness. As we waked in single file through the
village we had the feeling that hundreds of pairs of eyes were
watching us. We were only yards away from some of the houses and
it seemed as if the whole village had been deserted, not even the
barking of a stray dog interrupted the sound of our army boots.
We left the village as we found it, undisturbed.
Once more we were on the open road keeping a steady pace,
stopping and starting at each bend in the road. We had covered
about another five miles when we spotted a barricade and next to
it a figure of a man. We stopped in our tracks, went back around
the bend in the road, had a conflab regarding our next move. On
the left hand side of the road was a deep ditch, Anderson wanted
to use the ditch as cover and move slowly towards the barricade
but I did not agree with him. We had spotted the sentry at the
barricade and if he was doing his job properly then he would also
have seen us. The sentry was facing towards the German lines, he
was on the look out for German troops but must have known that
British troops were in the area. If we were Germans we might have
used the ditch but we were not, the boys agreed with me so Peter
and I slung the rifles over our shoulders and walked back around
the bend and walked down the road in single file, at the same
time ready to dive for cover. The sentry had his rifle at the ‘on
guard’ position, we had about three hundred yards to go when we
saw the rifle being lowered. We reached the barricade and it was
handshakes all round, he pointed towards the village and said
“English Officer”,
then raised the barricade and bowed in salutation. He knew
V.I.Ps when he saw them, so with a graceful sweep of his arm he
waved us through and someone said
“ I could have kissed that sentry”
“ Why didn’t you” someone else replied.
We walked towards the centre of the village and there stood a
monument in honour of those who fell in the last war. It had a
drinking well but no drinking vessel, that did not stop us, we
drank our fill.
A group of French soldiers approached us, once more it was
handshakes all round. Among the group was an English speaking
French officer so the sentry was half right when he said English
officer because it did not matter who he was, he could speak our
lingo. As far as he knew the nearest British troops would be
gathering ten miles away and he told me where he had last seen
them. The other four were trying to scrounge some food whilst I
was talking to the officer. He apologised for not being able to
provide transport because he had only one truck and that was to
take his men and himself to safety. He pointed to a large
building which looked like an aircraft hanger and told me that at
the first sign of Germans he was going to blow it up rather than
let it fall into German hands and that we had time to help
ourselves to some of its contents.
It was a food warehouse. The food was mostly in cans and
canvas sacks. I found a box with packets of biscuits, I took two
packets and a couple of bottles of beer. One of the French
soldiers gave me some French cigarettes. The wee sergeant was
walking around with a bottle of whisky in his hand. We must have
spent at least one hour there during which time we managed a wash
and ate some of the food we had been given, then we thanked the
French for their hospitality, shook hands and left. As we walked
through the rest of the village we noticed that it was deserted
as though the civilians had left for the nearest town.
We had nothing to fear now so we did not worry about what
might be around the next bend in the road. The French were behind
us and the British were somewhere in front.
I had gained a lot of information from the French officer.
Besides learning where the Battalion was last seen I also found
out that a number of British troops had passed through the
village about three hours before us and that they had a small
lorry. They had stopped at the village and the lorry was driven
back for more troops. They were also told to take what they
wanted from the warehouse and when they left the village some
marched out and some were driven. If they kept going in this leap
frog manner, we would never catch up with them. I kept most of
this information to myself, no one else seemed concerned.
We had walked about five miles until we came to the
cross-roads. The road was a much wider one than the one we were
on and there was a large number of vehicles using this road.
Vans, lorries and lots of farm carts piled high with furniture
all going in the same direction, heading towards the French
Belgium border. There was also the odd French soldiers who wanted
to keep walking, hands deep in their coat pockets and head and
eyes fixed on the ground with the probable outcome for him
looking bleak. Perhaps slave labour in some ammunitions factory,
or maybe forced to wear the German uniform.
We stopped at the cross-roads just long enough to smoke a
cigarette. We had another discussion. The wee sergeant wanted to
go with the flow of the traffic and he had persuaded his two lads
to agree with him but I said if I get a lift I will take it, if
it is in the direction that I was going. That direction was
straight over the cross-roads.
I said to Peter “lets go”.
We crossed the road and continued walking, leaving the traffic
behind us. There were no vehicles using our road. Three hundred
yards down the road Peter turned around and said
“the other three are following”.
So they decided not to go with the flow of the traffic.
We passed a number of French civilians mostly farm workers but
we did not converse with any of them but continued on our way. We
had only gone about four miles when we heard the sound of
vehicles coming from behind us but we did not take cover because
we did not think that it could be Germans. As they got nearer so
we stopped. It was a convoy of eight jeep like vehicles each
pulling a twenty five pounder gun and travelling at about sixty
miles an hour. We tried to stop them. It was a battery of British
Artillery. The co-driver waved at us but did not stop. This did
not worry me a great deal , I guessed it was them doing the
shelling the night before and would continue to do so in order to
hold up the German advance.
The wee sergeant did not see it that way, he shook his fist at
them as they sped passed. To console himself he took another swig
out of the bottle of whisky he still carried. Anyone could see he
was more that a little tipsy and was not going to part with the
bottle; mind you he was still walking only much slower and he was
being given plenty of encouragement to keep going.
We had gone a couple of miles more when we reached the
outskirts of what seemed to be a large village or a small town,
who cares! It was civilisation at last, the war had not touched
this part and there was no destruction of any kind that I could
see.
The people seemed to be going about their business as usual.
They knew that the Germans were coming and could do nothing to
stop them so they carried on as normal. The shops were open. It
was almost midday. Where has the morning gone? I still had some
French money so I bought French bread, cheese and some wine. Some
of the people greeted us in their usual fashion with words and
the waving of the hands. We all must have looked a sorry sight to
them because we had not shaved for days and our uniforms had
creases in all the wrong places, we were in a mess. Sitting on
the pavement and devouring some of what we had purchased, like
pigs filling our bellies just in case our next meal was some way
in the distant future.
We strolled up the main road and went into one or two shops.
The food shops had almost run out of stock. The French people
must have filled their larders. I bought a few apples and some
cakes that I thought would not go stale to quickly. We were just
leaving the bakers shop when a lorry pulled up and a Lieutenant
and a Sergeant jumped out, we saluted the officer. He gave us a
dirty look, no wonder because what we had bought was stuffed down
our tunics. I recall that I did not look to bulky but the wee
sergeant looked like he was ready to give birth at any moment.
The Officer walked into the Bakers shop, the sergeant with him,
told us to get back to our units as the town was out of bounds to
British personel. I told him where we had come from and he told
us that the infantry units were two miles down the road. The
French did not want their town to be involved in a battle with
the Germans so the British had to go beyond it.
So once more we decided to move on. It seemed that we were
almost in contact with our units. How had we managed to get so
near to ‘C’company? They must have stopped more often than we
did. As I turned around and looked at the wee Glasgow Sergeant
his eyes were closed, the whisky mixed with the French beer was
having an effect on him, he was more or less sleep walking.
We had been walking for about thirty minutes when we spotted
the first lot of troops, they were positioned on the edge of
another dense wood. I saluted and spoke to an officer who
belonged to the 6th battalion of The Highland Light Infantry. He
did not give us a very warm welcome, in fact he treated us as if
we had leprosy. I expect he had enough on his plate looking after
his own men and did not want to add the boozy five to his
collection; he told me that the 5th battalion was further down
the road.
I said to Peter “lets go and join them”.
The wee sergeant and his two men wanted to rest. My job was now
finished. I had left the three of them in the vicinity of the 6th
battalion, I was no longer responsible for their well-being and I
did warn the sergeant not to go near any wooded areas and also to
sober up before approaching any officer.
Peter and I found ‘C’ company or what was left of it. It took
time to recognise some of the lads because they looked terrible,
more like old men than lads of twenty. They were sprawled all
over the place with rifles lying on the ground, it looked like
they had given up, just waiting for the Germans to come and round
them up and take them to the nearest prisoner of war camp.
I found the C.O. He to seemed to have aged because his hair
was almost grey. I don’t know whether it was because he had lost
three quarters of his company and he had no idea what was going
to happen to the rest, the responsibility being to much for one
man, or whether he was lacking hair cream. He was sitting leaning
his back against a tree. He was amazed to see us. He stood up and
shook hands with us both.
He was very pleased that we had managed to rejoin the company.
He did remember that I was sent to warn Seven platoon and he
wanted to know what happened, so I told him what I did including
how I met Peter. He turned to Peter and said
“you are a very lucky young man, you are the only one of Seven
platoon to be here”.
He added “I hope the others turn up later”.
I told him all about the wee sergeant and the other to lads
that were with him and how they came with me. I had assured them
I had seen the maps of the area and I knew the way back and how
it was lucky for them that we met because they were heading in
the direction of the farm house which by then would have been
occupied by the Germans.
I asked him what had happened at the farm house after I had
left. He told me that the shelling had stopped and the Germans
were coming out of the woods again. He had ordered everyone into
the farm road and they made a run for the main road. They found
the dispatch rider, he was dead, he had been hit by a mortar
shell.
Now the question that I wanted to ask since I got here.
“Why have we stopped here sir”?
He said that the Royal Army Service Corps. have been notified
and we are waiting for transport to arrive.
“That sounds good” I replied, but I thought to myself they had
better hurry up or the Germans will be the ones doing the picking
up.
The transport did arrive the following morning. Those that
remained from ‘C’ company all got into one truck. Thirty four all
together. The C.O said we were at the head of the queue because
we had some wounded personel and that we were the only company
who had made direct contact with the enemy.
We lost three more lads before we reached Cherbourg, but that
is a different part of my story..........

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