The move to the Somme
Journal extract, Capt. Taylor, Intel. Officer 1 Gordons
An extract from the War Diary of Capt. J.P.P. Taylor, the Intelligence Officer of the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlands, describing the move to the Somme at the end of May / beginning of June 1940.
Forêt du Hellet
After spending six weeks in the same area the Battalion moved north from the Argonne Forest by train and MT, and reassembled itself in the Forêt du Hellet near Neuchâtel on May 29th, where it spent the night. The train party spent two nights here, having arrived the night before. I went by road with the Colonel, and Hutchy and Hector went with the rifle Companies by train. There is not space here to describe this trip, but we passed through some of the most beautiful country, although the greater portion of the journey was done at night.
On the afternoon of May 30th, the Bn marched to the Haute Forêt d’Eu, which proved to be a long and tiring march. The bivouac area in the south end of the forest, north-east of Réalcamp, was reached at 2330 hrs approx. The Colonel, Hector and myself had motored there during the afternoon and allotted Company areas, also a suitable park for the MT as both 'A' and 'B' Echelons were being moved forward. After deciding on the different areas, which was not as easy as might be thought, owing to odd French detachments and ammunition dumps being scattered throughout the forest, we returned to Réalcamp and visited the 'Bays' who, being part of the armoured division, were on their way back. They very kindly gave us dinner and we all met old friends, including Humphrey Wild, and John Tatham-Warter. The latter was elsewhere in the village and I had not time to see him.
We were very interested to hear what the Armoured Division had succeeded in doing, which involved a considerable loss in material, but luckily not in manpower. Most of their tanks were put out of action by aerial bombing. I actually dined at Bde HQ, who had established themselves at Réalcamp during the afternoon.
At about 2145 hrs I met Brian Hay, who was MTO, and guided his MT column to its park. I then waited and saw the Companies in, the last of which did not arrive until very nearly 0100 hrs. I heard afterwards that a French soldier who was acting as a road picquet at one of the turnings in the forest had left his post after the leading company had passed him, with the result that the remainder went on for a quarter-mile and halted, instead of being turned to their left. As soon as everyone was fed and settled for the night we had some 'eggs and bacon' cooked by Ord, which were much appreciated. I spent the night in the mess 30 cwt lorry, which made an excellent caravan.
Everyone slept until 0900 hrs when a message arrived summoning the Colonel to a conference at Bde HQ at 0930 hrs; in the meantime a warning order to move was issued. I might add that this was now nearly a daily routine as we had hardly spent more than one night in the same place since May 22nd and we little realised how this was going to continue.
The Colonel and Hutchy returned from the conference at 1300 hrs and verbal orders were given out during lunch: the Battalion and 'A' Echelon transport was to move to Tours-en-Vimeu that afternoon by march route and our present position was to become the wagon lines for the period that we were going to be on the Somme. I went off with Sgt Littlejohn, on a motorbike, and arranged for the picqueting of the route through the forest, and the Bn set off on my return at 1400 hrs approx. Before leaving there was a small air battle between a German and French plane which caused some amusement when we turned round to see, the Padre Ord and Smith crawling out from underneath the nearest truck when they had so quickly taken cover!
The Colonel, Hector and myself then went by car to Tours; Hector and I allocated billets for the Bn, whilst the Colonel went to the HQ of the 1st Black Watch at Acheux, from whom we were going to take over on the following day.
Tours was an excellent village; it had been completely evacuated, which made billeting extremely simple. There were several nice houses and it was rather tragic to find that everything had been left behind. There were at least four medium-sized farms fully equipped with valuable livestock that were either running wild, or else tethered and starving to death. We let loose many dogs, others we were compelled to shoot, and the men fed and watered the horses as this was our first experience of a village left in this condition. The Colonel sent a message to all Companies warning them against looting, pointing out at the same time that there was no harm in taking poultry, pigs, etc., which must be distinguished from liquor and valuable household effects!
The Bn arrived here at 1900 hrs approx. and were billeted in such a way so as to afford all-round defence to the town. Bn HQ was established in a very nice large house in the centre and halfway down the main street. The garden was full of 'pinks' and also strawberries; the latter unfortunately were not quite ripe!
At 1930 hrs we received an urgent message from Bde, warning us of an impending enemy tank attack, as tanks had been seen on our right flank north of Limeux on the 152 Bde, front, moving in a south-westerly direction. The Colonel arranged immediately for all roads leading into the town to be blocked, sentries were placed at these blocks, and he finally drove round the village himself at about 2330 hrs to make certain that everything was secure. The night however passed without incident.
The only other item of interest that occurred during that day was a dive-bombing attack which we saw from the Bn HQ garden. It took place at about 1830 hrs and appeared to be directed against Moyenville. This was the first occasion that we had seen enemy aircraft used in this way. I regret to add that there was little or practically no opposition and it was amazing to learn afterwards how ineffective the attack had been. No casualties were reported. The aerial activity had been considerable throughout the afternoon and evening.
We ate our evening meal at 2300 hrs and then went to bed. I shared a room with Jimmy Dunlop and I remember receiving our last parcel post from home, which included two magnificent Fortnum pies sent to me by Eddy and Joan. So ended the month of May, which had been one of much movement and a certain amount of fighting. The only rest which the men had received was on their train journey north.
On the following page I will give a list of officers and their various stations. The Bn itself was slightly below strength as a result of the Saar Campaign; in addition a certain amount of equipment had been lost, but it was mostly replaced whilst we were at the Forêt du Hellet. No difficulty was experienced in obtaining new vehicles but fighting weapons were not so easily procurable.
State of officers on may 31st 1940
- CO Lt. Col. Wright
- 2 I/C Maj. H.W.B. Saunders at SOS (Home)
- Adj. Capt. H.L. Christie
- IO Capt. J.P.P. Taylor
- LO 2/Lt. Crichton (attached Bde HQ)
- ATK Pl. 2/Lt. J.I.R. Dunlop
- Major C.D.M. Hutchins (also 2 I/C vice Major Saunders)
- 2/Lt S.D. Rae. Signal Officer.
- 2/Lt B.A. Brooke. Carrier Pl.
- 2/Lt P.B. Hay. MTO
- 2/Lt D.C. Campbell. OM
'A' Coy, 'B' Coy
- Capt. S.D.A.S. Aylmer, Maj. D.W. Gordon
- Capt. F.I. Cobb, Capt. I/C Dennistoun Sword
- 2/Lt. R. Ogilvie, 2/Lt. L.A. Gordon
- 2/Lt. P.C. Winton
'C' Coy, 'D' Coy
- Capt. D.G.S. Alexander, Capt. J. de B. Stansfeld
- 2/Lt. C.N. Barker, Lt. C.A.L. Watt
- 2/Lt. Than, 2/Lt. J.W. Rhodes
- 2/Lt. H. Murray
Capt. H. Rae Gordon left us whilst we were at the Forêt du Hellet.
2/Lt. Winton and Than joined at the Forêt d'Eu from the 'Base'.
Major D. Steele and Lt. Taylor left the Bn in the middle of May whilst we were at Ste-Marguerite, both going to staff appointments.
Major J. Clark left on May 12th to command 5th Bn
2/Lt. H. Murray joined at Budline on May 8th.
MO: Capt. N. Altham
Padre: The Rev. J. Mackie Hunter
Agent de Liaiso: Pierre Boude
The day was quiet and the men rested. The Colonel was called to a conference at Bde HQ, which had now moved to Vismes-au-Val, at 1030 hrs and returned to Bn HQ at 1330 hrs. He had a very busy morning, having visited 154 Bde at St-Maxent. All Companies had excellent dinners consisting of roast chicken, pork, new potatoes etc., which were well deserved. I remember Ord let us down rather badly and showed no initiative by serving ration beef. Hector and I procured a brace of red setter pups which we found in the village, but they only stayed a few days with us. We both spent the morning writing, and these were the last letters that we wrote home. I remember writing to my father reminding him that it was the 'Glorious First' and feeling glad that I was able to maintain the traditions of the remembrance of Saragossa.
The afternoon was spent in making final arrangements for the relief with 1st Black Watch. The Colonel and I did not leave Acheux until 1545 hrs and we then went to discuss defensive fire and C.P. tasks with the 91st Field Regiment, whose HQ were also at Tours. We had tea with them and finally returned to Bn HQ at 1700 hrs, where a quick Coy Comds conference was held and verbal orders for the relief were given out.
It was arranged that Coys would leave Tours by march route at 2130 hrs and take over from their opposite numbers. There was no difficulty about this and the relief was completed successfully by 0200 hrs. It was decided that 'A' Coy 7th A&SH should be attached to the Bn for that night and the following day until such time as the reconstruction of the line took place. For the night of June 1st/2nd Companies were disposed in accordance with plate i [shown below]. The wagon lines remained in the Forêt d’Eu.
Sketch map by Capt. Taylor, Intelligence Office 1 Gordons, detailing Battalion dispositions June 2nd 1940
High Resolution Image:
There was slight enemy shelling just before we left Tours, but this caused little damage and
no casualties. It lasted for about 20 minutes and one shell damaged the roof of the only occupied house in the village, but the occupants, a very aged married couple, were completely unperturbed.
For the position that we now occupied we had two tps of 25 pdrs of the 91st Field Regiment in support. The 7th A&SH with their HQ at Franleu were on our 'left' and the 4th Seaforth on our 'right'.
The Colonel and I got up at 0530 hrs and after a hurried breakfast left by car to go round the line. This was the first occasion on which either of us had seen it, there being no time on previous days. It is hard to visualise taking over a position during a period of comparative inactivity without previous recce, but in this war the average Bn frontage was anything from four to seven miles, which made any form of detailed recce a very lengthy job! Company Comds had of course seen their respective areas on the previous afternoon.
The first place we visited was Gouy, our extreme left, where we saw a platoon from 'A' Coy 7th A&SH, also a section of MGs which had been placed on this flank. We then went to the Coy HQ at Cahon, where the Colonel met an old friend in the Coy Comd. The question of the relief of this Coy by our 'A' Company was discussed and arrangements for it to take place that evening were made, final details being left to Stuart Aylmer. From Cahon we went to Lambercourt and saw John Stansfeld, whose Coy HQ were in a very nice old farmhouse. His platoon dispositions extended along the road from Lambercourt to the 'turning off' to Cahon. He left Pl. No. 16, commanded by John Rhodes, [which] was situated in the farm buildings at this road junction. We learnt from him that he was continually being sniped at, and in view of this he had moved his sections and had placed them on top of hayricks under the eaves of neighbouring barns. The sniping came from the direction of the Grand Bois.
It was already 0900 hrs when we left ‘D’ Coy and we had walked about four miles on the Lambercourt-Cahon-Gouy circuit. We then drove to Miannay and went round 'C' Coy area, which included No. 10 Pl. of 'B' Coy (2/Lt. L.A. Gordon), which was attached to 'C' Coy and occupied their left posts. This platoon was merely attached until the reconstruction of the line took place. We also visited the Bn OP (Observation Post) which was situated in this pl. area on the high ground beside the Lambercourt-Abbeville road. I climbed up the tree which was being used as the OP, and saw a small detachment of enemy crawling towards us. This manoeuvre was very well carried out and, although they were within 300 yds of us, it was almost impossible to see them with the naked eye. The German soldiers, I thought, appeared extremely well-trained in their stalking tactics. Our men even at this stage were poor at the art of concealment. The Germany uniform blended perfectly with the green cover through which they were crawling.
Needless to say, it was decided to try and capture these enemy and Mr. Gordon's pl. was ordered to perform the task. The operation was unfortunately not successful as our men were held up by enemy MG fire from the 'north-east' as soon as they came in view on this ridge of high ground. Casualties were certainly inflicted on the enemy, but we lost Cpl Shepherd, the Section Commander, and four others from that section were wounded. We unfortunately had not time to stay and watch this little attack which was arranged by Sgt Garcock in Mr. Gordon’s absence, but I feel that had our men been slightly more cautious these casualties might have been avoided. Cpl Shepherd was buried the following day by our Padre in the cemetery at Quesnoy-le-Montant. Cpl Shepherd I knew personally very well as he had been a Section Commander in 10 Pl. when I commanded it, and one of the few original members that still remained in the platoon. He joined the Bn in Aldershot in May 1938 as a Reservist, having formerly been in the Camerons.
We left 'C' Coy at 1100 hrs approx. and drove to Bouillancourt, where we met Douglas Gordon, who had established his HQ in a lovely château there. The gardener told him that it had been a German HQ only a few days before, and I have no doubt that it was again a few days later! We went round the positions of the remaining two pls. of 'B' Coy and then drove to Tœufles with Douglas, where we saw Stuart Aylmer. The remainder of the morning was spent in 'A' Coy area and arrangements were made for Mr. Gordon’s platoon to take over 'A' Coy's left platoon position when 'A' Coy moved to Gouy. The line was being thrown forward in this area east of Chaussoy so as to shorten it slightly and thereby join our right with the 4th Seaforth left in the Moyenville area.
We saw here a few of our tanks that had been knocked out by aerial bombing. By the time these plans had been completed it was about 1230 hrs. I returned with Pte Cummings in the CO’s car to Asheux; the Colonel remained to have lunch with Douglas.
I got back to Asheux at about 1300 hrs and found that Hutchy had been very busy making arrangements to move Bn HQ to Frières as it was thought to be a more central position and also a little more prudent as we had a section of 25 pdrs within 200 x of us! The Colonel returned from the front at 1430 hrs and left at once to attend a conference at Bde HQ. A warning order was also received at that time saying that we were to be prepared to move out of the line that evening and that we would be relieved by the 1st Black Watch.
Two hours later at 1630 hrs this warning order was confirmed. We were to take part in a large-scale attack which was to commence on the 4th, but our ‘A’ Coy was to remain in the line after relieving ‘A’ Coy of the 7th A&SH that evening as previously arranged. This was carried out at 2000 hrs and the Coy HQ were established at Cahon.
At 2200 hrs the Bn began handing over to the 1st Black Watch and on relief ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Coys moved into hides in the woods to the northwest of Cahon near the railway. Bn HQ and HQ Coy moved to Quesnoy-le-Montant and by 0200 hrs on June 3rd the relief had been successfully completed.
I shall never forget June 2nd, which was a most exhausting day, the weather being particularly warm and one felt that all one’s energies had been completely wasted. No doubt the 1st Black Watch were equally annoyed.