The Battle of Abbeville
3rd - 6th June 1940
The following description of the attack on Abbeville is taken from 'The Highland Division' by Eric Linklater.
"Preparation was made for a new attack on the Abbeville bridgehead. There was no certain knowledge of the strength of the German position, and though the enemy had been able to deal heavy damage to our armoured division, and wholly to repulse the second French attack, a report was current that so far the bridgehead was only lightly held. But the Germans were bringing up reinforcements, and their obvious intention was to continue their offensive from the salient they had created; if they were to be attacked, then the sooner the better.
General de Gaulle’s command had now left the lower Somme for service elsewhere, but the infantry, tanks and guns of the French 31st Division had arrived on the Bresle. The considerable strength of artillery, French and British, was brought into position in the ammunition dumps on the battery sites. The attack would be supported by about 250 guns of all calibres, and the conference to elaborate a fire-plan lasted more than three hours. It was complicated by the fact that none of French officer spoke much English, and few of the British officers had more than 20 words of French. Finally it was decided that the French attack would be supported by French artillery, the British by their own guns.
Seventy miles away, while this battle of the rivers was being mounted, the last remaining fragments of the British Expeditionary Force were ferried home from the nightmare beaches of Dunkirk.
The Battle of Abbeville
At five o'clock on the afternoon of June 3rd the road from Blangy to St Maxent was closed to the Fifty-First to allow the French to bring forward their troops, tanks and guns from the Bresle. The battle would begin at dawn; or so it was hoped. But ammunition for the French 75'S was late in arriving, and the attack, it seemed, would have to be postponed. All through the short night the road from Blangy was fearfully congested, but before daylight came it was clear again, and the 75'S had their complement of shells. At three o'clock on June 4th the Allied artillery opened intensive fire on the German positions, and half an hour later tanks and infantry, French and Scots, advanced towards their first objective.
Their goal was about six miles of ground overlooking the water-meadows from Caubert on the right to the Cambron woods on their left. The 4th Camerons, on the right, would attack Caubert and the wooded ridge called the Hedgehog. In the centre the French with their tanks, and the 4th Seaforths under French command, would make for the Roman fort on the north end of the Mont de Caubert, and try to clear all the country between the two main roads that lead to Abbeville, And the 1st Gordons, on the left, would from Cahon attack the Cambron woods and the spur overlooking Cambron. The task of the 154th Brigade, on the extreme left, was to prevent the enemy from reinforcing his bridgehead. The Brigade was given no objective to capture.
The Germans, by unlucky coincidence, had also mounted an attack for the morning of the 4th, and on their left - our right - their infantry moved out a few minutes before our barrage opened. When" B" company of the 4th Camerons advanced towards the Hedgehog, they encountered, in a field of rye well in front of the hill, a German battalion quite unscathed by gun-fire. There was stern fighting there. The Germans had sited numerous machine-guns in the corn, and "B" company had many casualties. One officer survived, Second-Lieutenant Robertson, who led the remaining forty of the company into a wood north-west of Mareuil-Caubert, where" A" company was waiting. There he reorganised his command, and returning to Battalion Headquarters at Huchenneville asked for more ammunition that he might resume his attack on the Hedgehog. But when he revealed his strength, he was dissuaded of his ambition.
"D" company, on the left, went forward against Caubert, and also met German infantry. The two righthand platoons fought their way through and the fifty men who survived, under Second-Lieutenant David Ross, made good their objective. The other platoons, advancing along the Route Nationale, met intense machinegun fire from the road ahead of them, and from the dominating ridge of the Mont de Caubert, where the French had failed to capture Cesar's Camp.
In the centre the attack was led by a battalion of French heavy tanks and a battalion of Chasseurs portés. Most of the tanks were wrecked, either by mines in a previously undetected minefield, or by anti-tank guns which had not been observed until they opened fire. A few tanks reached their objective, but had to retire to refuel, or were driven off again: the Germans had dug their guns deep into the chalky vallum of the Roman camp, and only a long-continued, densely-concentrated bombardment could have silenced them. Some of the French motorised infantry got as far as Yonval, in the valley west of the Caubert ridge, but were unable to go farther or to hold their ground.
The Seaforths Went On
The second wave of the attack consisted of a battalion of French light tanks and the leading companies of the 4th Seaforths. Advancing from the wooded slopes east of Bienfay, they approached the naked rise of the Mont de Caubert. But the tanks endured no more than two or three hundred yards of open country. Mines blew them up, or gun-fire hit and disabled them. The French officers and tank-crews were cheerful, confident, and superbly brave. They saw their leaders hit and disabled, but without doubt or hesitation followed, steering their vehicles into the deadly fire of the German anti-tank guns, till they too were killed. Their tanks lay inert and useless, or burst into flame. They were all put out of action.
The Seaforths went on without them. They ran into withering machine-gun fire, and were mown like grass. But those who lived went on, and the attack was carried a little farther. Some survivors reached their first objective, about six hundred yards up the slope. They were few in number. Sergeant Donald MacLeod was the only man left of his platoon. When his officer was killed, MacLeod led the platoon. Man after man fell to the clattering machine-guns that cut them down like a reaper. MacLeod himself, badly wounded, went on alone.
When Major Simon Fraser, commanding "B" company, was last seen, he was making a forward reconnaissance. Though his company was almost annihilated, he was still intent on reaching his objective. He refused to admit the evidence of defeat that lay so abundantly on the ridge, and went on. But there was only a handful of men to follow, and on his left and below him were the French infantry at Yonval, incapable of advancing till the Mont de Caubert had been won. And of the tanks that should have led the way to Casar's Camp, not one remained.
The 2nd Seaforths were successful, taking one of the Bienfay woods, and on the left "C" company of the 1st Gordons advanced from Cahon in face of stiff opposition from enemy machine-gun posts, cunningly concealed, and the forty survivors of the company reached the edge of the Grand Bois west of Cambron by nine o'clock. "D" company encountered similar resistance; but two platoons, though hindered by the difficulty of making their way through thick undergrowth, reached their objective a little later, and by eleven o'clock the company was in position for the next phase of the attack, with the remnant of "C" holding the northern front of the wood. The enemy, they reported, had no great strength in that vicinity, but his machine-gun posts were well sited, and "they naturally hamper the attack," said the Gordons apologetically.
They were eager to go on, however. They pressed for permission to advance on their second objective, but General Fortune had to refuse them. The centre had not kept pace with them, and their right flank was vulnerable. Even their first objective was untenable, and they were ordered to withdraw. The defeat of the French 31st Division, and the annihilation of its tanks, spelt failure for all; and the Abbeville bridgehead remained. _
On the extreme left the 8th Argyll and Sutherlands 154th Brigade - had been cast for a quiet role in the day's action, but their Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Colonel Grant, had ideas of his own. He had suggested a local attempt to reduce the German bridgehead at St Valerysur-Somme; but the Division, under French command, was preoccupied with the Abbeville front, and Grant was disappointed. But with the help of Major Towers, R.A., commanding a battery of the 17th Field Regiment in St Blimont, he staged an interesting diversion. With an observation post and a wireless telephone truck at Hourdel, they shelled German machine-gun pits in the marshes west of the citadel of St.Valéry and Le Crotoy, across the river where the enemy appeared to be concentrating. Though without immediate influence on the battle, the bombardment of Le Crotoy, at extreme range, had gratifying effects.
The 152nd Brigade lost 20 officers and 543 other ranks in the day’s fighting. Its battalions had been exposed to close machine-gun fire, to mortars, artillery, and dive-bombing; in the Highlands had not spared themselves. They have been signally unwilling to admit defeat, and when defeat could no longer be denied, they often retained a stubborn independent attitude to it. Sergeant MacLeod, for instance left wounded and alone on the Caubert ridge, eluded the enemy for two days and nights, and finally rejoined his Battalion. David Ross,who had fought his way into the village of Caubert, was reported missing; but on June 6th, forty-eight hours after the battle, he reappeared at Martaineville with another officer and sixty Cameron Highlanders who he had led through ten or a dozen miles of country infested with the enemy’s mobile forces. And Lieutenant Hugh McRae, 4th Seaforths, who was wounded in the assault on the ridge but reached a farther forward position, lay there till nightfall, and then of his two a half score men, all of whom were casualties, painfully sought and collected the few who could walk, and led them to the nearest Regimental Aid Post savings in certain capture.”