The Bresle position, June 7/8th 1940
Journal extract, Capt. Taylor, Intel. Officer 1 Gordons
The Colonel, Hector and myself having seen the last company pass Bn HQ at Le Monchelet, we left by car for Gamaches. We met Hutchy on the outskirts of Longroy at about 0100 hrs and told him that we would reconnoitre a place for Bn HQ, whilst he placed the Companies in position. I might add here that we were working off 1:250,000 maps which, although good, was a very small scale and only marked a few of the roads along which we had to travel. We were lucky the following day as we received some 1:50,000 maps of a revised 1870 edition, but as these were knackered they were even more difficult to read. The map situation was definitely bad, the distribution at the most only permitting one copy per company, and we possessed hundreds of areas that did not affect us, mostly Belgium! However we motored through the forest, which was pitch dark, and eventually came out into a clearing where there were a few houses. This transpired to be a small village north-east of Mille Bosc. I remember breaking into a farmhouse there with the Colonel and to our great surprise we found an elderly woman in bed, so we beat a hasty retreat! In the end, after much further searching, we gave up the unequal struggle and settled down on the main track running from east to west through the forest. It was now about 0230 hrs, and after a cup of tea we slept until 0730 hrs. In the remainder of the night, Companies were in position as follows. Right: ‘A’. Centre: ‘B’. Left: ‘D’. Reserve ‘E’ Coy with Bn HQ.
At 0830 hrs the Bde Commander arrived and we had a slight argument about orientation, which I am glad to say we won, but not before he dragged me off in his car to the track junctions at the forester’s house, where I proved my case. He left us shortly afterwards and Hutchy and the Colonel started off to go round the line whilst Hector and I went to choose Bn HQ. We eventually decided on the forester’s house, as although it was rather too far back it had the great advantage of being very well situated for lines of communication as it was direct to Bde HQ and at the conjugal point of all tracks leading to the forward companies. We remarked on the efficiency with which Bde HQ Signals ran a line up to us. By 1200 hrs HQ and HQ Coy were established in the wood surrounding the house. The house was used for sleeping purposes only. The Colonel returned to us at 1230 hrs having altered company dispositions to as shown on sketch (plate vii). A Bn OP was established in the centre of ‘D’ Coy area, from where one could see the whole front, as this company was situated on a rather prominent spur.
Sketch map by Capt. Taylor, Intelligence Office 1 Gordons, showing the Bresle position, June 7th and 8th 1940
High Resolution Image:
The wagon lines moved today to the west end of the forest southwest of Guerville. The remainder of the day was very quiet and everyone was glad of the slight rest. I spent the afternoon writing up the War Diary and distributing maps. Even at this stage one was plagued with paperwork. It seems to be inborn to the Army and I don’t think we will ever get away from it, but these long reports which were required daily in triplicate became rather irksome, especially when one read the nonsense that was eventually compiled from them by the divisional IO. We all went to bed at 2100 hrs that night and had a really good sleep, the first and last that we were to receive during this campaign.
One of the chief advantages of this position was the narrowing of the battalion frontage to about 1,800 yds as opposed to 4,000 yds on the Somme. I feel sure that we could have held this line for a considerable length of time as we were well concealed from the air and in quite a good position, despite the fact that we were overlooked by the enemy to a certain extent. I remember the Colonel insisting on each forward company sending out patrols on to the riverbank each night and not withdrawing until dawn. By day two-thirds of each company rested whilst the remainder kept watch. It was certainly the intention to make a ‘stand’ on this line had it not been for the enemy who were already behind us! They had apparently crossed further north in the Black Watch 4th Bn area and no one quite knew the extent of this opposition, which consisted of small patrols assisted by light motorised detachments. However, June 7th was quite peaceful on our front, and now for June 8th.
I forgot to mention that there was slight enemy air activity on June 7th at about 0300 hrs and certain troops (not from the Bn) were machine-gunned after crossing the bridge at Gamaches. I understand that they had fallen out for a ten-minute halt and had rather unusually started smoking; whether this was the case or not I am not prepared to say, but a certain number of casualties resulted from this machine-gunning.
The Bresle position
We all woke up early thinking that the day would be one of considerable activity, but we were proved incorrect as it was very quiet, with the exception of slight shelling and a little aerial activity. I went to ‘A’ Company immediately after breakfast at about 0500 hrs in order to collect a map-board of mine. Due north of their area I was surprised to find two companies of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders under Major Lorne Campbell, at the main crossroads in the forest. There two companies had been cut off at Ault on June 5th and had marched by night through the enemy lines, crossing the Bresle at Longroy (‘B’ Coy area) on the morning of the 8th. They were all very exhausted, having had no food and a very long and forced march each night. I went back to Bn HQ to arrange tea for them, but I think they were taken by the 4th Black Watch as they were nearer to their HQ than ours. On my return to Bn HQ, I found Hutchy organising our reinforcements, a hundred in number which had been brought up from the Base by Sgt Davidson. There were no Officers amongst this contingent. We were not impressed by these men considering that they had been training since September, their military knowledge was practically nil and their discipline typical of our new Belisha army. However, they were not to blame and we were naturally biased in favour of our own men.
I only stayed at Bn HQ for a few minutes, when I left with an Artillery LO whose name I cannot remember, for my OP, which was situated in ‘D’ Coy area. We were able to see a certain amount of enemy movement on the opposite side of the valley, and we succeeded in locating a machinegun post, but as the Artillery were shooting more or less blindly off inadequate maps, their efforts at destroying this post were quite useless. The Germans all through the campaign were at an enormous advantage with their artillery. They were extremely accurate, no doubt greatly assisted by their ‘sound ranging’ apparatus, and they literally used to ‘snipe’ with it, so rapidly did they engage their targets. Having air recce of course made it much easier.
We got shelled in our OP at about 1100 hrs. No casualties were caused. The Artillery LO lying next to me got hit by a shell fragment, in the groin, but no damage was done. He was unconscious for a few minutes, but this I think was due to shock as much as anything else. There was quite a lot of enemy air activity during the morning, mostly of a recce nature, and owing to their complete air superiority at this time they flew very low. Bren gunfire of course was quite useless. The hosepipe method of firing might have been satisfactory if the gun had been belt-fed but, as it was, the magazine was emptied before one could get on to the target. This, en passant, had been proved at Hythe when I was there, two years before the war started! Rifle fire was supposed to be very effective if done ‘en masse’, but I feel the ‘powers that be’ who suggested this form of opposing low-flying aircraft would have been the first to take cover! The quick-firing Bofors gun was excellent for A-A [Anti-Aircraft] defence but one needed large quantities of them in order to be effective.
In the afternoon I went to see ‘B’ Coy and the MG Pl. in their area. Colin Sword was doing excellently; it was only his second day commanding a company and everything was going well. His clothes were soaking as he had been forced to swim the Bresle during the morning when he was making a recce, owing to enemy shelling becoming unpleasantly close! Administrative arrangements for their two forward platoons in Longroy were very difficult, as there was no covered approach, and everything had to be brought up by night.
I found the MG section on ‘B’ Coy’s right flank. Their morale seemed rather low, and as they were shelled whilst I was there they took the opportunity of having a good grouse. I had words with the platoon sergeant, who had practically no control over the men.
I reached Basil Brooke and the remnants of his carrier platoon shortly afterwards. They were all extremely cheery but their after-lunch coffee had just been upset owing to a short bombardment as they were pouring it out! I only spent a few minutes with them and then returned to Bn HQ in time to answer the phone as the Bde Comd had just rung up to ask me to make a quick recce on a motorbike of the clearing due west of our HQ and to report whether one was visible at this clearing from the north-east part of the forest, which was supposed to have lulinajist [?]. Whilst I was making this recce I saw one of our own planes brought down and I sent Brian Hay off in his truck to investigate, but when he arrived he found it in flames and all the crew burnt to death.
I motored to Bde HQ, where I told the Bde Commander that the ground was not visible to the enemy, and had tea there. I saw Hulls, who was fussing about ‘I’ reports, but he was easily pacified. After tea the Bde Comd sent me back with two messages: one for our Colonel, the other for the 1st Black Watch. These were messages summoning them to a conference at 1800 hours and warning them that in all probability we would have to withdraw that night. Apparently the enemy had broken through in the 4th Black Watch area and a certain amount of chaos had ensued. We heard that the 4th Black Watch had been fighting the Border Regiment most of the previous night, and the duel had terminated by an SOS for an Artillery concentration on our own troops. I don’t think anyone quite knew what was going on, but there were luckily no casualties and the score was love-all! What was really serious was the enemy breakthrough in the south, and we were in grave danger of being surrounded by this movement.
The Colonel, who had been out the entire day himself, sent Hutchy to the conference and we all wondered where our next move would be. Hutchy returned at about 1930 hrs with orders that we were to deny our present position to the enemy until 2230 hrs and then to withdraw to St Nicholas. This withdrawal was to be carried out by marching and MT. All companies marched some four miles to the MT RV at Villey-en-Haut and were all embussed here excepting ‘A’ Company, who completed the journey on foot, a distance of 23 kilometres approx. Hutchy and John Rhodes formed the advance party and left by PU with Company representatives at 2100 hrs. In order to minimise delay we had a permanent advance party detailed who were ready to leave as and when required, in other words nightly! The remainder of the Bn started to ‘thin out’ at 2200 hrs, and we marched off as follows. ‘A’ Coy, ‘HQ’, ‘D’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Coy rearguard. We were very late in leaving as it took companies considerably longer to RV at Bn HQ than anticipated. ‘C’ Coy was particularly slow and it was nearly midnight before the Colonel, Hector and myself set off.
Contact with the enemy was not properly gained whilst in the Bresle position and we were genuinely surprised and also sorry at having to abandon it, as it was certainly the strangest position that we had been in, with a frontage of only about 1,500 yds. From now on, although it was hard to imagine, our life was to become increasingly strenuous