Driver MacAskill's evacuation with Arc Force
154 Inf. RASC, June 1940
MacAskill was one of the luckier ones evacuated with Arc Force. We pick up MacAskill's story as the Division fell back to Abbeville.
I remember very little of our short stay here. (Ed. Near Neufchatel) Our infantry were engaged in trying to drive the Germans out of the Abbeville area, so we must have been supplying them, at least until we ran out of ammunition.
No supplies of any kind had reached us for some time; petrol was being taken from wherever it could be found, and not much remained. We were now required to make an attempt to get through to Le Havre to find the ammunition, food and medical supplies needed to keep the Brigade in business.
All the available transport set off with a few spare bodies as riflemen in case of attack from ground forces. As we were almost out of ammunition it's hard to see what we could really do to defend ourselves. Although suggestions were offered, none of them were very practical; e.g. 'urinating on the enemy 'was rejected as this was probably a serious breach of the Geneva convention or something and we might well have found ourselves in trouble. Again I find memory failing me, as I have little recollection of the actual journey in to Le Havre, except that it took some time, and I believe that at least a large part of it may have been at night. This may have been because of the enormous pall of dense black smoke which rolled over the whole area, much of it coming from the huge oil storage tanks on the docks, which had been set alight. We thought this was probably done by our own base depot troops who had obviously long since fled. Not only the oil tanks had been set alight but all the storage sheds on the docks. This was no doubt designed to deny the accumulated supplies to the Germans but the job hadn't been very well done as we were able to get into several sheds which were not fully ablaze, in search of supplies.
We loaded up some of our 15cwt trucks with oddments of ammunition, food and medical supplies though all the ammunition I specifically recall was a lot of .303 Mk7Z, which for the uninitiated was a steel-jacketed round for heavy machine guns. It could be, and was, used in our rifles because there was no choice, but it bruised the shoulder and did the rifle barrel no good. By way of food we had canned peaches and 'hardtack' (the iron-hard biscuit used as emergency rations) and some jars of undiluted rum.
So, as they say in American war films,'mission accomplished', we set off back to find the Brigade. Our motor transport officer, with our platoon Sgt., had done an extremely difficult job here, guiding our small convoy through a route which had to be tortuous to avoid probable enemy patrols or infiltration, and finding the warehouses despite the almost impenetrable smoke-induced darkness. Now they had to get us out again if the supplies we had gathered at some cost, were to reach the battalions who needed them. But finding the Brigade again proved almost impossible. Everywhere we went was either already in enemy hands or had been abandoned by our own troops, excusably as we found later, since most of them had been taken prisoner. So we wandered around trying to find some of our people; directed from time to time by some solitary Military Police Cpl. courageously doing a very lonely job, trying to direct stragglers such as ourselves to find their units. We were directed and re-directed ;
"Try Fecamp", said one, so we did, only to find the troops there were from the opposition.
Eventually we were told, or our O.C. decided, to get back to Le Havre in the hope of finding some friendly faces there, as they were distinctly thin on the ground elsewhere.
As we neared the pall of smoke hiding the town we were ordered, correctly this time, to report to the C.O. of a force which had been assembled in some woods above the town, and were holding the road open for as long as possible in order to gather up as many strays as they could find. This turned out to be the HQ of our own 154 Bde., with remnants of the two Argyll & Sutherland battalions, 4th Black Watch, 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers with some attached troops and "A" Bde (A mixed force which had been hurriedly gathered, and sent to assist in the evacuation). Shortly after this we had to abandon and destroy what was left of our transport, siphoning off whatever dregs of petrol remained in their tanks before dropping a hand grenade in to set them alight. We were now foot soldiers but looking more like the Mexican bandits in old Western films, with bandoliers of ammunition draped over our shoulders. We had no other transport but needed the ammo and anything else we could carry. So we took our places in the ditch, alongside the remnants of the Black Watch, Argylls, Seaforths, Borderers, and isolated members of various other regiments. I don't think any of us felt more than slightly apprehensive about the future, and the mood was cheerful. We had, after all, survived a journey over the past few days that at times had seemed impossible, so we settled down optimistically, to await whatever orders were to be given us. There were few; man the ditches, form patrols, dig slit trenches where required and generally maintain order and discipline, so we did.
We had regular visits from the Luftwaffe, who seemed to time their visits to coincide with what, in normal circumstances, would be breakfast, dinner and tea-time. Most of us fired a few shots at them more to relieve our feelings than in any hope of hitting them, but surprisingly, in view of the amount of ammunition they expended on the forest they did very little serious harm., although I was twice lifted bodily off my feet by bomb blast, and on one occasion was partially covered by the soft earth and leaf-mould of the ditch when a bomb landed on the road within a few feet of where I was cowering.
That was on one particularly bad day when our small section seemed to be the specific target. The sergeant was moving around with a couple of water bottles, checking for casualties. Fortunately my mate and I had both escaped unhurt, but were glad of the water-bottles offered by Sgt. Angus. It wasn't till I'd swigged about half-a-pint to get rid of the dust that I realized we were drinking undiluted rum. Oddly enough, it had no noticeable effect on either of us, probably because we had been badly shaken up. I was quite deaf for a large part of that day and had a very sore head (the rum?) and my face, like my companion's, was almost black with the clinging rich mud from the ditch. On the other side of the road from us was one of my section, who burst out laughing when I went to walk across for a chat.
"Look at this, lads" he yelled" Old Bill and his pal looking for 'a better 'ole' ". This was a reference to the Bruce Bairnsfather's characters in his series of WW1 cartoons; in particular to the one in which Old Bill, peeved by his mate's complaints about the shell-hole they were sheltering in, advised -" If you knows a better 'ole, go to it".
It was about this time that two of our ex-D.R's [Dispatch Riders], missing their motor-bikes, found two old bicycles and a supply of rum so next time the Stukas came over to harass us, these two were seen pedalling furiously up and down our stretch of road, blasting off at the aircraft with their revolvers. They added considerably to the occasion by shouting "-and another Redskin bites the dust !" until having emptied the chambers, they tried to reload without dismounting. A hard enough task when sober.
Inevitably, they fell off and perhaps having had some sense knocked into them by the fall, crawled cheerfully back into their ditch. I'm reasonably sure one of these was an Aberfeldy lad while the other may have been from Ballinluig. Talking of things being 'found', someone had an old portable gramophone in working order but with only one record, or at any rate only one record they wanted to play. It was not an inspired choice in view of our circumstances to endlessly play "Home, Sweet Home", no matter how beautifully sung by a very popular soprano, Deanna Durbin.
Perhaps there was a prophetic element there, as very shortly after that we became aware that some parties from this little force were moving out, and we were told that we were to be ready to move later that night, into the town where a ship would be waiting to take us off. Despite the gloomy forebodings of the pessimists, it proved to be true. We moved out, and made our way into the black smoke which was Le Havre. As we approached the docks, we passed through a line of armed sailors who were sensibly nervous at being turned out into this dark and dangerous place, and as one of them asked, "Many more to come?" it was clear they were not enjoying themselves. However, it was cruel to reply, as someone did- "the next lot through are the Jerries, mate". There had been some spasmodic rifle fire as we were going through the town, so there may have been some truth in that. Certainly I was glad to see a naval vessel waiting for us, and even more glad that I had a steel deck above my head when the Luftwaffe came through again, and the machine gun fire rattled on the deck above our heads like hailstones in a violent storm. We slept more soundly than we had for quite a long time, but any dreams of a quiet and comfortable trip back to England were shattered when we awoke next morning, to find ourselves disembarking in Cherbourg.
We had been given Field Service Postcards (Army Form A2022) on which we were allowed to write only the date and our signature. Everything else was in the form of multiple choice sentences ; e.g. " I am well/I am ill/I am wounded, etc." and those that did not apply were to be stroked out. On the card I sent, dated 13 June 1940 which was kept carefully, and which I now have, I note that I had 'received your /telegram/letter/parcel dated'. I have no recollection of any parcel but I'm told that mail probably arrived with one of the, vessels which had docked at Le Havre to pick up troops and someone found time to deliver it.
I suppose the postcards we duly handed to whoever was detailed to collect them were put on the destroyer we had just left, and which was already moving on its way, while we waited on the quayside, clutching our few belongings. Eventually we were lined up and marched off in that brilliant sunshine, in 'column of route' to God knows where. Two or three hours later we were in the grounds of a large and obviously deserted chateau. Food had arrived from somewhere and was being prepared, but anyone expecting cordon bleu would be disappointed. I can't remember what we had at any time during the few days we were there but it was probably 'bully'. Orders were given for the usual sentry and stand-to positions; air sentries as before had whistles to blow as a warning of approaching aircraft, but all troops on the ground were ordered, in the event of aircraft being seen everyone was to remain under the cover of the trees, with no peering up, as white faces could easily be seen. We were there apparently only to wait in the hope of being found a ship to take us off. We were no longer equipped for battle but would prefer not to be required to meekly surrender if it could be avoided. To the best of my recollection we saw no aircraft, nor any other sign of an enemy during those days.
We had been there for about five days when we were once again lined up, looking just a little more ragged than before, to march back into Cherbourg, where it was believed, a vessel would be waiting to pick us up. "Where to this time" we wondered. The possibility that it may have been a German ship taking us POW didn't occur to us.
Just as well, for if it had, some of us would almost certainly have skipped off, thereby missing a lovely experience. It was a particularly hot spell of weather that week and as we marched, or straggled, along we were accosted by a flock of nuns offering large white jugs full of their homemade cider. It was delicious, but very alcoholic, and we hadn't had much to eat for the past two weeks so it wasn't long before the reasonably disciplined and ordered column disintegrated. The rhythm of the march became ragged and although officers and senior NCO's did their best they soon gave up and accepted that so long as we kept moving it didn't matter. Keep moving we did; if anyone fell out they would have been helped on by people at the rear.
British troops on the deck of a ship, evacuated from Cherbourg, 13 June 1940, watching army stores on the shoreline burn.
IWM (F 4869)
In view of the fact that we had been helped so generously by the friendly nuns it is not surprising that I don't remember actually arriving back in Cherbourg. A ship was waiting, by her name, which I can't now remember, she was Dutch, but the 'meal' we had been queuing for since boarding the waiting ship was provided and served by the "Sally Ann" (Salvation Army). I don't remember exactly what it comprised, but I know the sandwiches were made with good thick slices of bread and we given big mugs of hot sweet tea. Nectar and ambrosia! I should think we slept for the remainder of the trip which took us to Poole in Dorset where we lay off in brilliant sunshine, while the crew laid 'scrambling nets overside, as the ship was too big to get in any closer to the shore. We scrambled down these nets into small boats which took us ashore, where we piled into 'buses' waiting to take us to Bournemouth. We were billeted in King Edward School until arrangements could be made to sort us out.
We were a mixed bunch, as by the time we got this far we had acquired elements of almost every unit in the British Army, so it would take some sorting.
Before we settled down we had more tea and sandwiches, this time from the good ladies of the W.V.S. The sandwiches here, in direct contrast to the Sally Ann's, were so thinly cut that it took two handfuls to make a good bite, and the tea was in china cups with saucers.
While this was going on other local people were inviting groups of three or four soldiers to their homes for a bath and yet another meal. Baths were acceptable, but beds which were offered for the night had to be refused as we had been told we could be moving out at any time, which proved to be the case. The authorities had been prepared for this and although we had a quiet and peaceful night in the school we were given travel warrants in the morning and told to go home till we were sent for. I was astonished when I got to the station at Aberfeldy to find my father there, along with it seemed, half the population of the village.
Word had reached them that some of the missing men were on their way home. Although we had not been aware of it, we had been officially reported 'missing in action' some time before this, which must have caused considerable anxiety in our homes. Sadly some of the parents there had to go home alone, still hoping that some news of their sons would reach them soon. In my own case, anxious though I was to get home to a good meal, my father marched me straight over to the Station Hotel bar where he bought me a drink
On my way home at last, still wearing the 'tin hat "since the bonnet was lost 'DBEA' [Destroyed By Enemy Action] as the Army had it", carrying the rifle and all the trimmings and trying hard to look like a seasoned warrior rather than a kid home from school, as I walked the half-mile or so to the house where my mother and sister waited with the kettle 'on the boil'.