Ark Force and Arques-la-Bataille
Journal extract, Capt. Taylor, Intel. Officer 1 Gordons
Sketch map by Capt. Taylor, Intelligence Office 1 Gordons, showing the line of withdrawal from the Foret d’Arques June 9th - June 10th 1940
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All companies excepting ‘A’ had travelled by MT from Villey-en-Haut, through Bailly to Envermeu, which seemed to be a general dispersal point. We arrived at the latter at 0600 hrs but no one was able to direct us to our billeting area. We ourselves did not know our final destination at this juncture as all arrangements had of necessity been made in a hurry and we were promised guides from this DP. (Drop-off Point) No guides were there, and in the fog of war we were sent to St Nicholas via the Dieppe road and by 0630 hrs there was a solid traffic block on this road. This was due partly to lost vehicles and partly to small lost detachments of troops who were trying to find suitable ‘hides’ near the road, as it was now broad daylight.
At 0645, just as the chaos was at its height, a squadron of German fighters flew over at about 500 feet, and after ‘dipping in salute’ flew back without firing a shot!! During this halt I went back to Envermeu, where I found Cluny MacPherson the BM, (Brigade Major) and he told me that the Bn area was at St Nicholas, so on my return the Colonel and I led the Bn, who were still embussed, into St Nicholas via the Forêt d’Arques. We reached our area at 0700 hrs, where we found Hutchy, who showed the companies to their rest areas. I went straight back to Envermeu to find ‘A’ Coy and thus prevent them from taking the circuitous route. It was some miles along the Bailly road before I found them. I arranged with Stuart Aylmer to put out the necessary guides for him and brought Ian Cobb his 2 I/C back in the car with me. The Company, although extremely tired, were marching awfully well.
Hutchy had again found a magnificent mansion for Bn HQ; it was, I think, the nicest of all. A very large and up-to-date townhouse and the owners, obviously wealthy people, had been forced to leave everything behind them. Driving up to the main entrance in the Colonel’s lovely car made me feel as if I was a guest arriving for a weekend house party—one had lost all idea of time now that we tried to sleep between 0900 hrs - 1200 hrs daily!
We re-equipped our mess with china and also our cellar with some excellent wines. After a quick breakfast I managed to get three hours lying down, but was wakened by David Crichton at midday, who came into my room, having already marked my map for me with the latest information. I was extremely grateful to him. He also was dog tired but nevertheless very cheerful.
The Bde Commander arrived a few minutes later and saw the Colonel in his room. He explained that there was a danger of the enemy coming round our left flank and that we were to move at once into a position in rear of the 5th Bn Gordon Highlanders from where we could protect the left flank of the Bde. The 5th Bn was in the Forêt d’Arques. He wrote the confirmation of this verbal order in the room before he left. As a result of this order, which meant an immediate ‘clear out’, we wolfed a hurried lunch and companies were told to move to the Forêt d’Arques at 1400 hrs. The Colonel and I left at once by car to make a recce, and to liaise with the 5th Bn: Bn HQ were told to RV at the Henri Quatre crossroads.
Sketch map by Capt. Taylor, Intelligence Office 1 Gordons, showing the 1st Gordon Highlanders' dispositions between 1400-2130 hrs on June 9th 1940
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The Bn arrived at 1445 hrs and Companies were given areas as follows. Left: ‘D’ Coy. Centre: ‘B’ Coy. Right: ‘C’ Coy. Reserve ‘C’ Coy at Bn HQ (see sketch, plate ix). By 1600 hrs everyone was in position and orders were received that the Colonel should report to Div. HQ at once for a conference. He sent Hutchy to this meeting and from 1600-1900 hrs all was quiet. We had tea in the forest and supper was being prepared for 1900 hrs on account of the light. Hutchy returned from Div. HQ at 1930 hrs and a Coy Comds was held at once. Orders were given out that the Bn had to withdraw any time after dark to Colmesnil by march route. The Colonel ordered Companies to withdraw and RV at Bn HQ by 2130 hrs. At 2130 hrs Hutchy set off with the usual advance party and ‘A’ Echelon Transport for our new destination. ‘B’ Echelon Transport was also in the forest but moved under Bde arrangements. Sgt Littlejohn set off with the ‘I’ section to picquet the route. By this date we had taken part in many large-scale moves but never in all our experience had we come across one like this to equal it for complete chaos and disorganisation. The distance to be covered was only 10 kilometres, and it took marching troops and MT 7½ hours!
The main hold-up, which lasted for over an hour, was in Archelles, which was a complete bottleneck. Here the Buffs and Foresters were trying to enbuss, the 154 Bde all on MT were passing through, and apart from this unit transport from the Buffs and Foresters brigade was cutting in from a side road. There were also many other small detachments converging in Archelles from different directions and all of which arrived at the same time! The French, I feel, were to blame as they had blown prematurely all bridges across the river with the exception of one!
The result of all this was that the one road leading back had four lines of traffic on it intermingled which were all the marching troops. Sgt Littlejohn’s motorbike broke down, which made any further route picqueting impossible, and our MT eventually lost its way right at the end of the journey. The Colonel’s car with the Colonel, Hector and myself in it had got sandwiched in the middle of all this chaos and we were not able to pass or get clear of it until we were two miles outside Sauqueville. The only maps available were the 1:250,000 copies, which added to one’s difficulty.
We found Hutchy and one rifle company who had halted unfortunately just past the turning-off to Colmesnil, which necessitated having to turn out MT. Whilst this was taking place we drove on to Sauqueville and allotted company areas for the Bn here. It was now already 0430 hrs and broad daylight; the majority of the Bn had still four miles to march and, had we gone to Colmesnil, this would have lengthened it by a further 1½ miles.
Up to date this proved to be quite the worst night that we had spent, being reserve Bn. No contact had been gained with the enemy. For the men, although it was their shortest march it was by far the most tiring. We knew at this stage that each move was designed to take us nearer the coast with the view to embarkation, which made each move more tense than it otherwise would have been!
Sauqueville – vice Colmesnil
The Bn arrived here at 0500 hrs and went into farms around the village, the two forward Companies ‘B’ and ‘D’ taking up a defensive position facing east, overlooking the railway. As many men as possible were given a rest. The remainder of the morning was absolutely quiet and the afternoon was only broken with occasional evening recce planes flying overhead. By this stage of the proceedings we were beginning to have grave doubts as to whether we would see England again and realised the hopelessness of the situation, although the original plan of embarking from Havre still held good. At 1400 hrs artillery and SAA fire was heard on the line of the River Bethune and the Colonel was called to Bde as it was possible that we might be required to assist in the extrication of the 5th Gordons from the river-line. It was at this meeting that the Colonel was ordered that all kits and everything excepting fighting material was to be jettisoned so as to make it possible to transport the whole battalion in our own MT at 1700 hrs. An order then came from Bde stating that we were to be prepared to withdraw that night and that all our MT was to be made available for troop-carrying purposes.
Very soon after receipt of this message, a second was received explaining that the original scheme of embarking at Havre was cancelled and that the Division would form a box-shaped bridgehead round St-Valéry-en-Caux and endeavour to embark from there. The Bn was to hold a position west of Cany le Burgh (Cany-Barville) and our withdrawal route was given via St-Pierre le Viger and Ste-Colombe. Bde HQ was to be at Cany. (Although we did not know it, the enemy by the time this order reached us had been sitting in Cany for 12 hours!)
I left at once to make a recce of this route but, as I was only allowed one hour for the job, I was unable to go further than Luneray. Luckily my time was curtailed, otherwise I would have walked into the enemy two days before schedule! I returned to Bn HQ at 1830 hrs, just in time to see the Colonel before he left for a Divisional conference at Deauville.
During the next half-hour, warning orders were given to Company Comds and they marked this devious route on their maps. (By this stage we were using Michelin maps of France in lieu of the 1:250,000 sheet 4s. Personally, I preferred the latter as they were more detailed, despite the smaller scale. No sooner than all this had been completed, we received an order from Div. HQ at 1900 hrs, telling us to withdraw at once by march route to Petit, and thence along the Le Bourg-Dun road, where from the latter we would find MT to take us to St-Valéry. It stated that this Tpt would be on the outskirts of Le Bourg-Dun at 2230 hrs. Our own Tpt was sent off empty under Bde orders, I never understood why.
As it was a good 3½ hours’ march to the Tpt RV, there was no time to be lost and Major Hutchins in the absence of the Colonel decided to get everyone on the move at once, and to leave our M/C DR behind to meet the Colonel on his return. It was now of course known that the enemy were in Cany, hence the alteration of plans.
Hutchy decided to take the marching personnel and ordered me to guide our ‘A’ Echelon MT. Sgt Littlejohn did what he could to picquet the route. Everyone was on the move by 1930 hrs and shortly afterwards Hutchy left the Bn in charge of Stuart Aylmer and went back to Div. HQ to try and make contact with the Colonel. Hector sent Sgt Keiller back on a motorbike to Bn HQ with orders to wait for the Colonel and guide him onto the route we were taking and also to inform him of our whereabouts in the column. It transpired afterwards that Keiller never made contact. Neither of us knew at this stage that Hutchy had gone back to Division, however everything went like clockwork until the head of the marching column reached the outskirts of Avremesnil (see sketch, plate x), when everyone halted. I got out and went on foot up to the head of the column, where I found the Colonel in his car by himself. It was now about 2300 hrs and, being a wooded area, extremely dark. The Colonel ordered me to go off in his car to find the Transport, which we thought would be very near at hand in fact on the outskirts of Pitié.
Sketch map by Capt. Taylor, Intelligence Office 1 Gordons, showing the route taken by the 1st Gordons from Veules Les Roses to Gueures on June 10th 1940
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I motored to Pitié, which was only a hamlet and separated from Avresmesnil by a small country lane. When from there I turned onto the Le Bourg-Dun road and found no transport, I became rather anxious and thought I had lost myself, but I motored on and arrived at Le Bourg-Dun; and it wasn’t until reaching the town itself that I found the MT, which had been allotted to us, and also, to my surprise and relief, I found Hutchy in the back of an enormous three-ton lorry!
I told him that the Bn were a good 1½ hours’ march from here, and we decided to turn the MT and motor back to pick them up as there was suitable turning space in Avremesnil. Hutchy was extremely anxious to see the Colonel as he had received orders from Division that we were to launch a small attack on Cany at dawn that morning and the same old story that there were only a few odd motorised troops holding it, which we were to drive out! It was now one hour to dawn and we were several miles from St-Valéry with absolutely no chance of reaching there before about 0700 hrs at the earliest.
We motored back with all the MT to where the Bn had halted, but only to find that they had gone! I made a quick trip down all the other roads leading out of Avremesnil but, seeing no sign of the Bn, we turned the Tpt again and brought it back to its original RV.
We then broke into the local Mairie at Le Bourg-Dun and wrote a message to Div. HQ, explaining that the Bn had not yet arrived and it would be impossible for us to attack before about 0800 hours. We gave this message to an M/C DR of the Provost Company, who said he would get it through.
Shortly afterwards we met the Colonel and the Bn all embussed entering the town from the Avremesnil road. The Colonel had found some Tpt carrying MT on this road and had embussed the Bn. It actually belonged to the 5th Gordons, so I suppose they took ours. We left Le Bourg-Dun at about 0200 hrs for St-Valéry. It was a most unfortunate muddle but, owing to the continual countermanding of orders because of the changing events, there was little hope of any proper organisation from Div. HQ, who weren’t awfully clever with moves long before the Blitz started! Even if we had not been compelled to halt at Avremesnil, we would never have reached St-Valéry by 0200 hrs.
Our ‘B’ Echelon Transport, which could have taken all of us the whole way, moved under orders of 153 Bde to Blosseville and arrived at about 0730 hrs.
Before putting to paper the events of our last 36 hours, I should like to point out that it will not be a full account as neither the Commanders of ‘B’ or ‘C’ Companies are here, and in the case of the latter there is unfortunately no representative whatsoever.