The Battle for Abbeville and the German Counter Attack
Extract from Mike Drinkall's "A Londoner in the 51st HD"
The following extract, describing the battle for Abbeville, is taken from “A LONDONER IN THE 51st HIGHLAND DIVISION – JACK DRINKALL’S STORY by Mike Drinkall. Published by S/B Somes Books in 2014. ISBN 978-0-9929494-0-2.
The author, Mike Drinkall, has set out the story of the 51st Highland Division retreat to St.Valery using his father’s and other accounts. He draws from many established sources to trace the action that his father took part in. Jack Drinkall was in 75th Field Regiment RA and as part of Ark Force was evacuated from Le Havre escaping the surrender at St.Valery. The footnote sources have been left out of this extract.
The Battle for Abbeville and the German Counter Attack
On the 1st June, after General de Gaulle had left the river Somme to serve elsewhere, General Fortune received an order from General Altmayer that an attack should be made on the Abbeville bridgehead on or as soon as possible after the 3rd June. "At three o'clock on June the 4th Allied artillery opened intensive fire on the German positions, and half an hour later tanks and infantry, French and Scots, advanced ... " Dad's comrade recorded his experiences as they arrived in position near Abbeville:
"We were welcomed by a squadron of Jerry dive bombers giving a display on a village not far from our position and after getting in got down to consolidating it - digging etc. Our wagon line was an evacuated farm whence we had our goodly supply of milk and eggs and the spot of rhubarb. From this time on we had a lot more excitement than we'd ever had before - we fired for the first time the day we got into position. It was quite an experience being behind those guns for the first time they went off. I didn't get much sleep there as the guns usually fired at night and I was often on duty in the early morning in the observation post (O.P.). Our O.P. was a ditch by the roadside in a patch of open ground supposed to be in full view of the enemy so we had to go there before sunrise (3 a.m.) and leave when it got dark (9 p.m.) - taking our day's grub and not shifting from the hole all day - rather a monotonous job. We had plenty of enemy aircraft over - often in squadrons but they didn't attack us. One bomb made an awful mess of the road up to the O.P. We hardly saw a single allied plane the whole time - and the infantry who suffered somewhat from enemy aircraft developed a bit of bias against our R.A.F. We heard plenty of artillery action on our flank and also machine gunning in the front line but we didn't get anything except for occasional shrapnel burst - none of which came near us."
The objective of the tank and infantry attack was to clear the area between the two main roads leading to Abbeville, taking back some of the high ground that overlooked the town and the river Sornme. As fate would have it, a few minutes before the Allies' barrage started, the Germans moved forward ready to launch their own attack. In their advanced positions, hidden in cereal fields, the German infantry were well placed to meet the advance. This, combined with their previously laid minefields and established fortified positions for guns, posed a formidable challenge." Gregor MacDonald of the 4th Cameron Highlanders, as quoted in Bill Innes in St Valery - The Impossible Odds, recalled his recollection of the first wave of attack on that fateful day:
"Our objective was the west bank of the Somme roughly one mile away. Our front was a broad expanse of flat ground with a rye crop one foot high, which afforded us little cover, and we must have presented an easy target to the waiting enemy. By the time we were half-way to our objective we had seen a number of our men go down. If the casualties were close at hand we tried to help but our objective was first priority and we were forced to leave as many where they fell. Then quite suddenly, there appeared before us what must have been at least two enemy companies which had been lying unseen in the rye crop and only appeared when we were within one hundred yards. They greeted us with a hail of fire from their Spandau machine-guns and huge gaps appeared in our formations. By this time we were getting near our objective and with a final desperate effort we reached the edge of the escarpment bordering the river Somme ... "
"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 gunfire hit and disabled them. The French officers and tank crews were cheerful 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 Germans 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 down like grass. But those who survived went on, and the attack was carried a little further ... Man after man fell to the clattering machine-guns that cut them down like a reaper ... "
Other 51st units including the 2nd Seaforths, 4th Camerons, 1st Gordons, 1st Black Watch, 8th Argyll and Sutherlands were all involved that day. Actions took place in a number of areas including Monte de Caubet, Bienfay, Villers, Cambron and Cahon. Poor reconnaissance of the heavy German defences, included their bridgeheads, resulted in inadequate intelligence of the real strength of the enemy and the 51st took many casualties in one day's fighting. The Division lost twenty officers and five hundred and forty three men mainly from the 4th Seaforths and 4th Camerons."Its battalions had been exposed to close machine-gun fire, to mortars, artillery and dive-bombing; and the Highlanders had not spared themselves.”
On the 5th June the Germans military launched a major offensive codenamed "Fall Rot" (Case Red) against the Somrne-Aisne line. The objective was the annihilation of Allied forces remaining in France." In the area where Dad was located with the 51st the German divisions went from defence to attack, assembling north of the river Somme and attacking on a line from Caumont, south of Abbeville. The attack by German infantry supported by their artillery, mortars and dive bombers commenced at 4.00 am. They targeted the villages occupied by the 51st - Saigneville, Mons, Catigny, Pende, Tilloyt and Sallenelle. The 51st had no chance of holding the twenty five mile front and were gradually overwhelmed and driven back, by the superior numbers and arms of the enemy, until they held a front running from Toeufles through Zoteus to Frieres.