51 Division & French - Attack on Abbeville Bridgehead
4th June 1940
Extract from "THE FIGHTING IN THE SAAR AND SOUTH OF THE SOMME" prepared by the Historical Section of the Cabinet.
4 JUNE  - 51 DIVISION AND FRENCH ATTACK ON ABBEVILLE BRIDGEHEAD
In the early morning of the 4 June a low summer mist overhung the valley of the lower Somme. Such conditions were favourable, as the movements of troops and tanks were covered from distant observation, whilst visibility was not so poor as to hamper their movements.
At 1320 hrs the barrage which was to cover the advance of Colonel Pére's heavy tanks from the line Villers sur Mareuil - Bienfay came down on the woods in front. Ten minutes later where it made its first lift and the advance was timed to begin there was no sign of the tanks. The 4 Seaforth was ready and waiting to follow them. The 2 Seaforth at once set about its task of clearing the woods round Bienfay and Bois de Villers of forward enemy posts.
Light tanks were to follow the heavies and a further echelon - one light tank per infantry section - was to accompany the 4 Seaforth. The faster moving battalion of "chasseurs portés" was to come through and hold the successive objectives until the Highlanders arrived to consolidate them. So all depended upon the success of the tanks which had no infantry in close support; but the plan had already gone awry.
The barrage had run away from the assaulting troops when the heavy tanks at last appeared. The leading ones which attempted to pass between the Blangy - Abbeville road and Bois de Villers ran into an undetected minefield and a number were blown up or caught fire. (1) A report that this area might be mined could not be verified beforehand on account of the enemy posts in Bois de Villers. Then as the heavy tanks and accompanying light tanks came into view of Mont de Caubert they were subjected to heavy fire from field and anti-tank guns well sited and dug in.
Meanwhile the 4 Seaforth had waited for its escorting light tanks which only arrived by driblets. It was not until 0405 hours that the right of the battalion moved forward on the south-eastern side of Bois de Villers, and then only three tanks were present. The advance on the left of the wood was made at 0415 hours without tanks, but a report from the French said that these had gone on and could be picked up beyond the wood. They were never found.
As soon as the 4 Seaforth came within close range of the enemy at Mont de Caubert it was smitten by machine gun fire from unlocated positions. Although officer and men fell fast the leading companies strove to get forward along the lower slopes of the ridge.
Some of the tanks had managed to reach the first objective - a track crossing the ridge immediately north of Bois de Villers - but the Highlanders could not get near them. On the extreme left some of the chasseurs had succeeded in reaching Mesnil Trois Foetus and even went beyond it. There was stiff fighting in and around this village and part of the German garrison was forced to withdraw.
[A German company near Mesnil Trois Foetus had dug deep, narrow, well camouflaged slit trenches against tank attack. A/Tk fire made little impression upon the French heavy tanks and this company was nearly surrounded. It had heavy losses and 3 A/Tk guns were put out of action. Capt. Alfons König the coy cdr conducted an energetic defence and eventually withdrew to a position some 300 metres NE of Mesnil Trois Foetus. Later, German dive
bombers intervened. Capt. Konig was awarded the Ritterkfreuz.
Extracted from "Volkischer Beobachter"
By 0630 hours the tanks had suffered crippling losses; the 4 Seaforth had made little or no progress on the right where the chasseurs did not appear; and on the left there was little prospect of pushing on from Mesnil Trois Foetus. Trois Foetus.
Tanks were seen moving about the ridge but soon a number began to return through the Allied original position. [(1) Later the French reported that this withdrawal was necessary as the tanks needed to refuel. The inference is that they had not filled up with petrol before the attack.] About 0830 the chasseurs were seen to be withdrawing from Mesnil Trois Foetus, accompanied by about thirty prisoners they had taken; [2. About 60 prisoners were taken in all on this day - mostly Bavarians of the 199th Regt. (57 Div)], the crews of disabled tanks were straggling back everywhere. It was obvious that the attack had failed and all forward troops were brought back to reassemble behind the line of the morning. The 2 Seaforth which had dealt faithfully with the German forward posts took up a general line from the forward edge of Bois de Villers to Bienfay.
Losses had not been light, for at 1430 hours only 6 out of 33 heavy tanks were reported present and 60 out of 142 light tanks. The 152 Bde lost 20 officers and 543 other ranks.
The French 31 Div, forming the left of the main attack, was ready to advance at 0330 hours when the barrage lifted after it had fallen for 10 minutes on the woods beyond Moyenneville. The starting line was covered by the dispositions of the 5 Gordons (153 Bde) round Moyenneville and of the 2 Seaforth (152 Bde) at Bienfay on the right.
Some infantry and light tanks went forward in the mist up to time, but the whole movement appeared to lack vigour and co-ordination. It was soon evident that the troops had little idea of what was expected of them, and soon they were held up in front of the wood west of Mesnil Trois Foetus. There were reports that the eastern edge of the wood had been taken, but almost simultaneously news came that on the left the French were back on their starting line and mixed with the 5th Gordons. These parties of our Allies, like those who had gained some ground, made little effort to take cover or dig in; and when increasing visibility revealed them to the enemy in the wood and on Mont de Caubert they suffered accordingly.
It was reported at the time that the French had been driven from the wood west of Mesnil Trois Foetus, but appears more likely that the withdrawal of Colonel Pére's men from Mesnil was mistaken for a German advance.
No further attempt to advance was made by the 31 Div although it had only engaged one regiment. The root of the failure was lack of time for recce; and it was known later that many cdrs of forward troops only arrived in the area at 0130 hours.
The total failure - it was hardly less - of the main attack rendered the flank attacks delivered by the 51 Div of small significance.
On the right, indeed, the only result was to emphasize at some cost the fine fighting qualities of the Highlanders. The 152 3de (Br. H.W.V. Stewart) attacked with the 4 Camerons whose objectives were the woods in front of Caubert and the village itself. Zero hour was fixed for 1345, 15 mins after the French tanks should have started for Mont de Caubert ridge. Almost from the start the troops came under machine gun fire from the ridge, and soon both the leading coys clashed with German infantry also advancing. There was hard fighting amid the standing crops south or the wooded spur (7680) near the Blangy - Abbeville Road. Two platoons, under 2/Lt. D. Ross fought their way into Caubert and were cut off in the village [(1) On 6 June 2/Lt Ross brought his party, most of them wounded, into Martainneville, having made his way back through the enemy.] By noon the Camerons were reassembled in the vicinity of their starting line about Villers sur Mareuil. In the afternoon the Germans counter-attacked and reached this village but they were soon driven out by the fire of the British artillery.
The left flank operation, however, did all that could be expected or it. The 1 Gordons was to clear Grand Bois from the NW as their first objective and then move on to their final objective, Bois de Cambron. This latter position dominated the valley running north from Moyenneville to Cambron; and when held would both cover the left flank of the final stages of the 31 Div attack and also cut off the enemy posts on the Miannay - Moyenneville plateau. First the 1 Black Watch, which was holding the line of the Cahon valley, pushed forward and established posts in Petit Bois, just SW of Grand Bois; these posts covered the right flank of the Gordons' advance. The Gordons made only slow progress at first, but gradually they asserted themselves and before noon had reached the forward edge of Grand Bois. This was the first time the battalion had engaged the enemy on equal terms and its success in dealing with the German machine gunners made it confident, and eager to go on. Co-operation with the artillery, progress being signalled by a system of Very lights, was particularly satisfactory; and it came as a great disappointment to all ranks when, in consequence of the failure of the main attack, the movement was not allowed to proceed. Indeed it was deemed advisable to give up what had been won.
On the extreme left of the 51 Div sector (154 Bde) a battery of 17 Fd Regt, with the O.P. and wireless truck well forward in Le Hourdel (5997) did some satisfactory shooting at the German defences West of St.Valery (sur Somme) and at Le Crotoy on the southern tip of the entrance to Baie de Somme.
Shortly after zero hour the German artillery had opened harassing fire mainly on the Blangy-Abbeville road and certain woods and villages in the forward area. This, with bombing and machine gun attacks from the air continued until well into the afternoon: comparatively little fire was brought to bear upon the crowded and exposed artillery positions of the Allies.
Farther in rear German bombers made repeated attacks along the Bresle valley.
Shortly after mid-day Major-General Fortune reported the failure of the attack to Tenth Army.
[During the afternoon General Altmeyer gave instructions that if strong enemy attacks developed a withdrawal would have to be made behind the river Bresle, the line of which would be "held to the last man".
Such a German attack was, indeed to be expected. Information from all sources indicated the arrival of heavy enemy reinforcements. The few prisoners said they had just arrived after long marches and continuous MT movement was heard along the Somme valley during the night.