1 Gordons Deploy to the Saar
Journal extract, Capt. Taylor, Intel. Officer 1 Gordons
Below is an extract from the War Diary of Capt. J.P.P. Taylor, who was the Intelligence Officer of the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlands.
Sept 3rd 1939
Although everyone was extremely depressed, the news that war had been declared came almost as a relief. At least the suspense was over and only one course left to pursue. We all thought that it would only be a matter of 48 hours before we were moved overseas but, as it was, the final movement orders (for there had been many false alarms) did not come until September 20th. During these first three weeks, half the battalion had been moved into billets in the Farnham area, as a precaution against expected air raids, where they enjoyed relaxation in comparative comfort. What surprised me more than anything else at this time was the fact that there seemed so little to do. I had pictured a scene of feverish activity and people working far into the night, but it was just the reverse. Mobilisation, which had started on September 1st, went absolutely smoothly and according to schedule. A great triumph to Eddy and a reward for the many hours' hard work he had spent in evolving the scheme. For myself, I had less to do than anyone, my sole command being eight men, and two crates of maps which were not to be opened until we had reached our destination! How long and drawn-out those three weeks become, and what a strain! Thursday September 22nd at last arrived and, with it, a slight mist and drizzling rain. I got up at 4.30am and motored to the 'goods siding' to see the advanced party off which David Hunter-Blair commanded. When they had gone, I allocated the train to take the main body of the battalion and came back to breakfast in the mess. At 6.30am I drove back to the station and waited for the battalion to arrive. It was a somewhat depressing sight: everyone looked strained and all were labouring under an enormous weight of equipment which rendered them almost immobile. Entraining commenced after a short rest and the train pulled out at about 7.30am.
As the day wore on, the sun came out and everyone seemed in slightly better spirits. We speculated as to whether we were going to Southampton or Bristol, but it soon became clear from the direction that it was the former. Our destination was also known to be France as the instructions were for 'a short sea voyage'. We arrived at Southampton about 11.30am and embarked at once onto a Channel steamer. This organisation was also excellent and went without a hitch. We lay at anchor for the remainder of that day inside the 'boom', and it was not ’til the early hours of the morning that we set sail. No one was allowed on deck and the atmosphere, on account of extreme overcrowding, was extremely stuffy. Luckily the sea was very calm and none had suffered from any ill effects when we found ourselves drawn up alongside the quay at Cherbourg harbour at 7am on the following morning, the 23rd.
On disembarkation the Bn marched to the main railway station, where kits were stacked and washing facilities were available for a 'clean up'. Later in the day there was a wild rush to change money with the Field Cashier, then back to the station waiting room for a dinner of 'Hard Tack and Tea'. It was given out that all men would be back, ready for entraining, by 1830 hrs, but owing to a misunderstanding there were about 250 absentees. A consignment of 150 arrived at 1930 hrs but, as there were still 100 outstanding, officers were sent with MPs (Military Police) to collect them from local brothels and estaminets. This somewhat amusing but unfortunate incident was attributed to the first taste of 'Calvados'!
Eddy had a row with the RTO (Regimental Transport Officer), who had underestimated the numbers by two complete carriages; and as time did not permit those to be supplied, it was decided to put the 'drunks' with the guard's van for the journey. Finally a lot of exhausted officers had a very intoxicated battalion (complete) left Cherbourg about 0200 hrs. As this was the first day in France, it did not appear to be a very good beginning and necessary precautions were taken against a similar recurrence.
The transport arrived at Brest at 1600 hrs. Drivers were disembarked at 1700 hrs and drove to a transit camp that evening. Donald, Charles Barkes and Brian dined at the Hotel Continental. Similar trouble occurred with Calvados until the authorities were able to set up the requisite organisation to deal with it. Two days were spent in unloading the trucks. The Carrier Pl. left by rail on the 28th to join the Bn, the MT leaving by road on the 27th.
The train journey from Cherbourg to Fresnay-sur-Sarthe was not exactly thrilling. There was little room and the maximum speed was about 10 mph. We finally arrived at Sillé-le-Guillaume after passing our correct de-training station owing to an error on the part of the engine driver! Here, we were allowed out and breakfast was eaten on the platform. It was about 10.30. I met Gen. Alexander, Col. MacCreary and John Nelson.
Left for Fresnay at about 1100 hrs and arrived at 1230. John Rhodes and Pierre Boudet met us. The Guards carried our heavy packs in their MT and we marched to our billeting area at St-Christophe-du-Jambet, a distance of 7 km approx. - wonderful weather, trees weighed down with apples, pears and figs. The Padre, and Bruce Harvey the MO (Medical Officer) marched with Dugie whilst Eddie, Joe and self went in John's 8 cwt.
We arrived at 1500 hrs, people were quickly shown to their billets and a hot meal followed. Dugie, Joe, Eddy and self had rooms in the Comte du Viennay's château.
The Carrier Pl. arrived at Sillé-le-Guillaume on the morning of the 27th and arrived at 1400 hrs at St-Christophe.
On the 28th, HQ Coy (David Hunter-Blair) bathed in the river Sarthe. HQ mess was above a café, rather a barnlike building - Smith was the cook, helped by L/Cpl Ingram. Freddy was an excellent PMC.
The weather continued to be perfect and, being an assembly area, there was little to do.
David H-B, Bruce, Eddie, Hector, Freddy and self hired a taxi and dove to Le Mans for dinner. Returned about 0300 hrs after failing to find any entertainment.
The Count was asked to dinner - artichokes and champagne. The Count and Dugie both made short 'entente cordiale' speeches.
Dugie, Joe, Eddy, self, Freddy and Basil had tea with the Count - apple tart and very sweet champagne. Afterwards Bruce procured two taxis and David, Hector, Freddy, Bruce, Titch Campbell, Brian, Basil and self went to Le Mans - three latter dined out Chez Henri, the remainder at the restaurant in the Grande Place. Drove to Le Parc afterwards - very amusing evening. Bruce and Hector's dance à la nude. Left at 0230 hrs.
Base details: left on Thursday morning with Smith, Colin D-S - Smith went off with Mackie Hunter's shirt.
Transport arrives with Donald and his road party - parked in château meadows. Pte Cummings became my servant. Dined in Fresnay that night.
Road party under Joe left during the afternoon.
Train party leaves in the evening from La Hutte. Long march to station - packs taken by MT. Spent morning with Dugie buying straw. Entrained in the dark. Good meal on platform sitting on bales of straw. Train left at 2300 hours.
Notes on St-Christophe:
- The shooting incident.
- Shortage of food.
- Shortage of cigarettes.
- Rudeness of East Yorks. advanced party officer.
Neuville St-Vaise [Vaast?]
Monday, Oct 2nd
Arrived Arras 1900 hrs - met by John Rhodes and Pierre. Bn given tea before setting out on seven-mile march to Neuville. Bn marched off at 2100 hrs. Eddy, self and Titch remained to supervise unloading of baggage and to bring up the 30 cwts and packs. Titch and self arrive at 0200 hrs. First cigarette ration arrived on platform at Arras.
Notes on Neuville:
- The Arras party with Dugie - incident with Pte Mitchell.
- Visit to Vimy.
- Recce of the 'Grusai [Gruson?] Switch'.
- First mail received.
- Proper rations began to arrive.
- Excellent shoe repair done by local cobbler.
- Visit to Arras with Joe.
- Laurence Maitland gets ill.
- The RTO, who knew '-all about them'.
Sainghin en Mélantois
After a - day stay at Neuville, where the weather broke and first signs of winter were experienced, we moved by train and MT to Sainghin-en-Mélantois. The Bn marched off at 0600 hrs approx. to a small station a few miles away. Hector and self waited in advance to allot the train, liaise with RTO etc. Arrived at 0645 hrs and found no sign of anything. Went to station café, had café cognac and tried our luck on local ‘fruit machine’.
Arrival of RTO later. Journey, unlike all others, a short one. Arrived at Fretin at 1100 hrs, where we detrained and marched to Sainghin. First experience of Pavé. Pouring rain. Installed in new billets by 1230 hrs with 'A' Coy at Grusai.
- The Grusai switch and our first impression of the Maginot Line.
- Roscoe's château and the unfriendly owner.
- Unpleasantness in 'B' Coy.
- Eddie's nice landlord the taxi-driver.
- Our first visits to Lille in the local bus ..... leave. Dinner with the OC (Officer Commanding) Consul.
- Excellent dinner with Laurence.
- First concert party arranged by Padre - David sings Jean.
- Took over from Coldstream. Small row over mess, which we eventually changed.
- Self billeted in nice house where woman repaired my SD jacket very well. Cummings proves to be good servant.
- L/Cpl Ingram walks into the cupboard.
- Bde HQ at Fretin - Brigadier explains to Dugie and self Gnl’s plan for defence line - first details of Templeuve positions.
- Spent five days only in Sainghin and handed over to Gloucesters on leaving.
- First motor accident.
- First Church Services.
- Hector and self spending hours with Dugie marking out the imaginary ditch in the Templeuve line.
- 'A', 'C' and 'D' Coys spent five to six weeks approx. then moved, the former to Bourghelles, the latter two to Cysoing.
- Bn HQ, HQ Coy, 'B' Coy spent an extra two or three weeks, then moved to Cysoing at the end of November to join the remainder.
- The Templeuve Defences:
- 'The House to Let' position at La Fourmissiére.
- Criminal waste of time - days spent in digging on ground which it was inevitable would become waterlogged within 24 hours.
- Many trenches after being dug were filled in again.
- Hours spent fussing about the line of the AT ditch.
- Frost precautions.
- Balls - the miles to go to them at Ostricourt.
- Absurd security and secrecy all over nothing.
- Gort and Douglas Gordon came to lunch. Thought the former an unintelligent-looking man only suitable as a figurehead. The Daily Mail reported the lunch as a 'simple meal' - very late in arriving.
- Duke of Gloucester paid us frequent visits, very shy but always cheery b affable.
- The Lille Consul came over to lunch. Not a very good advertisement for the Englishman abroad!
- HQ Mess bought a wireless set.
- Competition concerts once-weekly, a very useful way of combining entertainment with an interest for the men. Freddy, Hector, self, Donald, Brian, all
- perform in the HQ Coy Concert.
- 'Plum' Clements has another outbreak of his old illness and leaves us.
- Continual trouble with L-M over 'B' Coy.
- Woodcutting in Bois de Tassiniére. Road-making.
- First 'Belgium scare' soon after arrival in October. CMU rather on edge. Roscoe disgruntled - HQ Mess found to be too large and suggestions made for an 'A' and 'B' mess division.
- David and Joe, also some NCOs go off to the SAAR for a short visit.
- Coy Defensive Positions:
- Left Boundary: R. Mareq: Inter Corps Boundary, with II Corps.
- Right: 2. North Staffordshire.
- Went for a trip in a 'Lysander' and had a look over positions to see how visible the digging was from the air. Next passenger killed ten minutes after going up.
- At end of October first recces on Cysoing position begin - self and Dugie out several days looking at the ground.
- Air raids (all recce) became a regular event at 12 noon daily.
- Bn Tpt moves up from Château on Pont-â-Marcq road.
- Battle dress arrived at the end of October but issue withheld for time being. Discussions as to type of marking to be worn.
- Should Officers wear stocks? A very lengthy argument that was never settled.
- Restrictions on use of Gov't MT for going into Lille were put in force.
- Discussions as to whether men should be allowed to Lille or not.
- Eddy and Laurence had a row over a breach of security.
- Laurence and Charles Watt have a row and Charles is transferred to 'D' Coy as 2 I/C. Basil Brooke gets comd of I0 Pl. arriving from 1st reinforcements.
- Roscoe complains at too many Captains on Bn HQ staff - Freddy gives up being SO (Staff Officer) and goes as 2 I/C to 'A' Coy.
- 'Plum' gets the sack for being continually drunk.
- Ogilvie on the 'mat' for uncleanliness and inefficiency.
- 2/Lt. Prendergast of 17 Fd Coy RE always at HQ - Dugie trying to borrow 'augurs' to keep trenches dug.
- Church Parades held in the NAAFI.
- Men's dance arranged, but no girls!
- Tpt Concert not a success.
- 'B' Coy and HQ Concerts.
- Laurence's Sherry Party.
- Journeys to Lille.
- Water system in my billet breaks down and results in flooding the house! An awkward beginning to our stay.
B's photo arrived on day of arrival.
Ports became much more regular.
Originally billeted in 'Priest's' house but only stayed a few minutes on account of drains.
Weather gets much colder. Received warm pullovers, greatcoat lining and leather waistcoat.
Received regular supply of tobacco and very nice Dunhill pipe and 'Royal Yacht' tobacco, also 'Passing Cloud' cigarettes. Good billet. Enjoyed my time there. Aunty Madeleine's box of Brewers Chocolates.