7th Argylls & Sutherland Highlanders at Franleu
5th - 7th June 1940
The following description is taken from 'The History of the 7th Argylls - From El Alamein to Germany' by Ian C Cameron. It’s inclusion here was inspired by a recent visit by Brig. C. Grant to Franleu.
“The 5th of June dawned to the accompaniment of a thunderous barrage of shell and mortar fire. It was a memorable day for the battalion - the day on which they made their last gallant stand against the overwhelming flood of the German armies. Actually, the battalion was not in a position to conduct a co-ordinated fight, as its positions were too scattered, and so the battle developed into a series of isolated actions, with each company holding its own stronghold and fighting gallantly to the last. The best description that can be given is extracted from a narrative compiled (in a German prison camp) by the Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. E. P. Buchanan, M.C., from accounts given to him by the company commanders concerned, who were all taken prisoner with Lt.-Col. Buchanan that day.
The sketch map is based on a recent visit by Brig. C. Grant and on the map in 'The History of the 7th Argylls - From El Alamein to Germany' by Ian C Cameron
Just after daylight at battalion headquarters it was clear from the noise that something had started. The first information to be received came from a despatch rider; who brought back a message from one of C company's platoons in the Bois de Nevers, that they were being heavily attacked by the enemy on all sides. This platoon, as it transpired later, never had a chance. Hemmed in on all sides, the sections soon ran out of ammunition. ' 2nd Lieut. Moore, the platoon commander, realizing that his men were completely outnumbered, started to withdraw to his company, but there was open ground to the rear of the wood, and when the platoon came into the open 2nd Lieut. Moore was seriously wounded, and the few remaining wounded men of his section were rounded up by the enemy. No sooner had the message from C company been received than D company reported that the forward platoons at Cattigny were in contact with strong forces of the enemy. A section of carriers was at once sent forward under the command of 2nd Lieut. Powell to take up a position south-west of C company at Mons Boubert, with the task of preventing the enemy from cutting off C company from battalion headquarters. On arrival in C company's area, the carriers went into ground action on the west side of the village, and immediately engaged the enemy at 200 yards' range, and as a result inflicted many casualties. A threat, however, was developing on the right flank of the company, and consequently the carrier section moved over to meet this threat, where again they successfully beat off the German attack. Two further "sorties" were made, but the enemy brought up his anti-tank guns, and after one carrier was knocked out the remainder withdrew. to Mons Boubert, where they were used to strengthen the defences of the two remaining platoons of C company, the third platoon having already been" wiped out."
During all this time battalion headquarters was fighting its own private battle, as the enemy had advanced close up to Franleu and were engaging the posts on the forward edge of the village. Soon the enemy infiltrated into the village itself, and came within 50 yards of the command post. It was obvious that the limited personnel of headquarters could not hope to hold the position for long without assistance, and A company was ordered back from Quesnoy to render this much-needed help. The company commander, Capt. Handley, and the reserve platoon under 2nd Lieut. Haig, were first to arrive, but on entering the village Capt. Handley's truck received a direct hit from an enemy mortar bomb and Capt. Handley was mortally wounded. Haig, however, got through successfully, and took up a defensive position in the orchard immediately in front of battalion headquarters. By this time two patrols had been organized by R.S.M. Lockie and C.S.M. Dyer, and the enemy were cleared from the immediate vicinity of the command post. Some little time later the remainder of A company reached the village and took up positions on the east side of the village.
About 6 o'clock in the morning B Company, under the command of Capt. Logan, reported that enemy were advancing on their positions, but that they were being successfully shot up by the Kensingtons, the machine gunners who supported the company. In addition the enemy were observed to be massing in a ravine about 1,000 yards west of Saigneville, and a successful shoot on this target was undertaken by the battery of artillery attached to the battalion. After this, however, the situation became worse: All communications were cut, and all hope of controlling the battle from battalion headquarters was lost. The last message to brigade was passed at about 9 o'clock in the morning, after which the wireless truck was blown up and the battalion was left to fight its own isolated battle against incredibly overwhelming odds.
The Commanding Officer, however, had a hard enough task even to defend Franleu, as all day long the enemy pursued the attack. One attack was repulsed only to be followed by another, and throughout all this a constant shower of mortar bombs kept crashing down on this isolated band of brave men fighting to the end without hope. The battalion's mortars were not inactive, and, moving frequently from one position to another, they retaliated under the enthusiastic direction of their commander, Capt. Hendry, until their ammunition ran out.
The Church at Franleu today still bears the scars of the fierce fighting on 5 June 1940.
From the church tower could be seen masses of enemy troops and equipment passing to the west of the village, apparently unconcerned by the presence of British troops on their flanks and rear, but, true enough, not much could be done to hinder their advance. Each company of the battalion was surrounded and besieged by enemy formations who were thus actively engaged, but it did not hinder the main flow of the enemy westwards. The number of casualties within the battalion increased hourly as the battle raged all day long, and little could be done for them with no medical attention available. The padre, Rev. D. MacInnes, did noble work, but the cellar at battalion headquarters, which had been converted into a regimental aid post, presented a sorry spectacle.
In the early afternoon plans were made at brigade for a counter-attack to be delivered by a battalion of the Black Watch, assisted by British and French tanks, the object being to relieve the 7th Argylls. The troops went forward for the attack, but it was decided that it would be impossible for such a small force to expect any success, and the attack was called off. The battalion was now left to its fate, not from any lack of effort on the part of the rest of die division, but through the sheer impossibility of stemming the onrushing tide of enemy infantry and armour.
In Franleu the situation at battalion headquarters became hopeless. A shell which landed at the entrance to the command post wounded the adjutant, headquarter company commander, and the intelligence officer, and by 4 o'clock in the afternoon the only officers remaining unwounded were the Commanding Officer and 2nd Lieut. Haig. By now ammunition was practically exhausted, and all the reserve ammunition was blown up. 2nd Lieut. Haig was instructed to take the remnants of his platoon - now one section - and endeavour to break through to the rear in his platoon truck. In addition, the wounded who could move were told that if they wished they could take their chance at escaping. The padre, who had volunteered to remain with the badly wounded, was told to surrender battalion headquarters as soon as he could get in touch with the enemy. Finally the Commanding Officer, along with the gunner officer and· two N.C.O.s, attempted to escape on foot, but they had no sooner left the outskirts of the village than they were pinned down by enemy machine guns at close range, and in the end had to surrender.
The above account is one part of the story of the battle which the battalion fought that day, but it is by no means the complete story, as each company had been undergoing a similar experience in its own particular locality. A company along with the pioneer platoon of the 7th Norfolks, on the east side of Franleu, put up a heroic resistance after they had been cut off from battalion headquarters. Lieut. Fisher, who had assumed command, realizing that battalion headquarters had been evacuated during the late afternoon of the 5th of June, decided to concentrate his men and fight on his own to the end. After beating off one German attack after another, darkness descended and they had a comparatively peaceful night. During the night they captured a German artillery officer who, unaware of their position, had tried to gallop through them. The following day more and more enemy formations kept moving westwards on their flank, and although Fisher's men took heavy toll of these closely packed bodies of enemy, it appeared that two platoons of British infantry seemed too insignificant to warrant much attention. By the afternoon, however, the enemy became rattled, and decided to eliminate this little thorn in their side. Consequently repeated attacks were made, each preceded by a heavy mortar bombardment, but each time the attack was repulsed. At about 4.30 p.m. the final determined assault was made, and this succeeded on the right flank but failed on the left. Three enemy officers and a number of other ranks were shot dead within twenty yards of the company headquarters. Ammunition was now almost exhausted, and when the enemy shouted" Cease fire," and sent forward one of A company's own men, who had been taken prisoner, to order them to surrender, there appeared to be no alternative but to agree. The last act of this gallant company under Lieut. Fisher was to destroy all their weapons. Lieut. Fisher was then conducted to the German commander, who asked him to assemble his now weary company of men and congratulate them on the brave fight which they had put up.
B company's battle had also been a grim affair. They were not engaged as early on the morning of the 5th of June as C and D companies were, but by 6 o'clock in the morning an attack had developed on their platoon positions. The first enemy were seen advancing on Saigneville from Boismont, and these were engaged with artillery and mortar fire. Within an hour, however, further large numbers of the enemy began to approach from the east, and shortly afterwards enemy machine guns began opening up from the rear. By 8 o'clock in the morning the company was completely surrounded and all platoons were in action. To begin with, the enemy concentrated on the forward platoon, and working' round to its rear separated it from the remainder of the company, and before long the whole platoon was captured. The remainder of the company continued to fight against superior numbers for the rest of the morning. At midday the company commander, along with his company sergeant-major and a runner, left company headquarters to deal with an enemy section post which had penetrated into the centre of Saigneville. After this was disposed of they found themselves unable to get back to company headquarters, and by 3 o'clock in the afternoon, surrounded on all sides, the company were compelled to surrender.
In C company's battle one platoon was captured in the early morning. This was to be expected, as the platoon was completely isolated from the remainder of the company. The carriers were then sent up to assist the company and to keep communications open between the company and battalion headquarters. Taking advantage of their mobility, the carriers took a heavy toll of the advancing German infantry.
Two hours after C company had lost its first platoon the remaining platoons were attacked by enemy infantry advancing from the direction of Bretel. Gradually the platoons were forced back into the village of Mons Boubert. At 10 o'clock in the morning znd Lieut. Alan Orr Ewing was badly wounded. The company tried to hold the' outskirts of the village, but with the enemy infiltrating through the farm buildings and orchards this was found impossible, and again they had to retire. This went on all day, with each platoon putting up a stubborn fight, but being forced further and further back until at 5 o'clock in the evening the company's position was limited to a small ring around company headquarters, but even this small perimeter could not be held. About an hour later Capt. Hewitt, the company commander, was forced to surrender the remnants of his company.
The fourth rifle company, D company, did not have a static fight that day like the remainder of the battalion. The two forward platoons went into action early in the morning against an infantry attack estimated at battalion' strength. The frontal attack was repulsed, but meanwhile other enemy troops had penetrated into the southern portion of the village of Arrest, and thereby not only cut the company's communications with battalion headquarters but captured the reserve ammunition and cookhouse. The reserve platoon was ordered to recapture this position, but it was an inadequate force for the task. By 8.30 in the morning all platoons were running short of ammunition, and with the enemy in front and rear rapidly advancing past both flanks, the company commander, 'Major Young, decided that his company could no longer make any effective resistance, and at 10.30 in the morning he ordered the two platoons of his company to withdraw to the left rear, and if possible make contact with another battalion of the brigade at St. Blimont. This withdrawal was successfully accomplished and all the wounded were evacuated. .Communication was now possible with brigade, and as it appeared that D company was the only remnant of the battalion, it was placed under the command of the 8th Argylls, which was the battalion at St. Blimont. Shortly afterwards the company was ordered to proceed to Nibas, to link up with the force there and act as the situation demanded. The company moved via Escarbotin, for it was impossible to move due south across the open ground, and they reached the village at about 3 o'clock that afternoon. The position was entirely unsuited for defence, as it was situated in a hollow and was surrounded by thick woods. Accordingly Major Young decided that his small force would have to pull back once more to the area of Escarbotin and hold that instead.: There they made contact with D company of the 8th Argylls, which was placed under command, and the plan now was for the brigade to hold the line Belloy – Escarbotin - Fressenneville. In theory the scheme was sound, but to the south of Escarbotin there was a three-mile gap, through which the enemy were advancing unopposed. Nevertheless, the position was held until nightfall against repeated enemy attacks.
By 11 o'clock that night the situation demanded a further withdrawal. This time the withdrawal was on Woincourt, but no sooner had this been completed than orders were received that Escarbotin must be held at all costs. The tired and weary troops faced about once more, and moved forward again to their old positions. Daybreak on the 6th of June found them holding these positions, except for one platoon under' Capt. Ritchie, which had not received the order to return to Escarbotin. It was a hopeless task for such a small force to hold the village, but these were the orders and they had to be obeyed. All day long on the 6th of June they were subjected to bombardment and attacks, and this continued throughout the following day, the 7th of June, until the evening, when ammunition was exhausted, and with more than 50 per cent, casualties Major Young had no alternative but to surrender.
The last of the fighting strength of the battalion had surrendered after what can only be described as the most tragic but nevertheless glorious record of the whole campaign on the Continent. The words" impossible task" and" overwhelming odds" may have become monotonous with repetition in this account of the actions of the battalion on that disastrous day, the 5th of June, but no other words can adequately describe these events. As a Highland river in spate carries all before it in its tempestuous torrent, so did the German armies surge over the obstacles placed in their path. For a brief moment isolated islands of resistance stood firm against the flood, only to be swamped in the end.
Little remains to be told. On the 7th of June the effective strength of the battalion was 5 officers and 130 other ranks, virtually B echelon of the battalion. The whole division was now withdrawing westwards to conform with the French army.”