Withdrawal from the Somme
Journal extract, Capt. Taylor, Intel. Officer 1 Gordons
Below is an extract from the War Diary of Capt. J.P.P. Taylor, who was the Intelligence Officer of the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlands.
At 0500 hrs we received a message from ‘A’ Coy stating that the enemy had broken through between Saigneville and Gouy, and were making for the high ground southwest from Gouy. In other words they would shortly be in rear of ‘A’ Coy and between them and Bn HQ. This was confirmed by the 1st Black Watch, who also reported an enemy advance from north to south parallel to the Gouy-Miannay road but covered by the high ground which was from S.W. to N.E. of this road. The information was still rather sketchy and Sgt Littlejohn was sent off on his motorbike towards Quesnoy, along the Quesnoy-Saigneville road, to see if he could ascertain further information from the high ground north of Quesnoy; on his return he reported that there was considerable enemy movement advancing south from the direction of Mons-Arrest.
The Carrier Platoon
In the meantime at 0530 hrs the Colonel explained the situation to 2/Lt. Brooke O. I/C Carrier Platoon, and ordered him to send his best section of carriers out on to the high ground overlooking Cahon and Gouy in order to assist ‘A’ Coy in their withdrawal. No. 1 Section under Sgt Inglis was sent out; this section on reaching this area took up positions approx. as shown by H1 on plate v. One section of 2/Lt. Ogilvie’s Pl. ‘A’ Coy had moved to the eastern downward slopes of this ridge and were engaging an enemy LMG post at close range. Sgt Inglis’s section caused the enemy many casualties. It moved its position once in order to gain a better field of fire. From eyewitnesses, enemy losses were estimated as heavy. Each carrier fired over 700 rds LMG without a single stoppage. Owing to their proximity to the enemy and being continuously under fire, they had to perform their task by mounted action. The enemy wasted no time in bringing their 4” mortars into action, which on all occasions proved to be a most effective and accurate weapon. All three carriers were soon hit from this shelling and had to be abandoned. Sgt Inglis was killed whilst using bipod action to cover the withdrawal of his crew.
The Actions of the Carrier Platoon ‘A’
[Inserted from further on in the Journal]
Coy from 0500 hrs to 0730 hrs, June 5th, 1940 (see page 35): Major Aylmer, at the same time as sending his message to Bn HQ, ordered 2/Lt. Ogilvie to move at once with one section of his platoon onto the east slope of the ridge immediately west of Cahon in order to prevent any enemy infiltration in rear of his company. 2/Lt. Ogilvie and his men were in their new position by 0510 hrs approx. They were at once confronted with an enemy LMG post of five men 70 yds in front of them. There were undoubtedly other enemy sections in the area, but 2/Lt. Ogilvie succeeded in keeping out this post and advanced slightly past it. Whilst engaged on this side, he heard Sgt Inglis’s carrier section in action on his immediate left. He also heard enemy mortar fire, which was directed against this carrier section and later turned on him. Capt. Thomson, one of the survivors of Sgt Inglis’s section, stated that heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy by his section, forcing them to withdraw into cover, which thereby released the pressure on 2/Lt. Ogilvie. He explained how well Sgt Inglis had done and also how the carriers were destroyed by mortar fire. This ridge was reinforced by ‘C’ Company, who took up a position at 0700 hrs approx. with the object of facilitating the withdrawal of ‘A’ Coy and HQ Coy. Up to now there had been little enemy pressure further west.
As previously stated in the narrative, 2/Lt. Brooke was unable to find No. 2 Section under Sgt Keiller, but No. 3 Section under Sgt Lawrie was withdrawn from the west flank and motored past le Montant travelling at great speed on his way to ‘C’ Coy. The noise of the trucks could be heard several miles off and it would appear that the enemy may have mistaken them for tanks. The effect was that ‘A’ Coy were left unmolested, with the exception of PSM Camochan’s pl. at Gouy, and the company less this platoon withdrew along the line of the railway. The enemy now engaged ‘C’ Company, where Capt. Alexander was killed and other casualties inflicted. PSM Camochan brought a very successful rearguard action and disengaged himself some time later. Two messages ordering his withdrawal were sent at 0700 hrs; the second got through but the runner never returned.
The enemy were held until 0800 hrs approx., when Major Hutchins ordered the withdrawal of HQ and ‘C’ Coys, who moved back to Acheux via Quesnoy and Campagne. It was at Campagne that the RSM McLeal, the Premier Pl. Comd, Signal Sergeant and others took the Franleu road by mistake.
Sketch map by Capt. Taylor, Intelligence Office 1 Gordons, showing withdrawal from Somme between 0500 hrs and 0730 hrs June 5th 1940
High Resolution Image:
At 0520 hrs, the remaining two sections were ordered out by the Colonel and told to hold the high ground to the north and northwest of le-Montant (see sketch, plate v [June 5th: 0500 hrs to 0730 hrs]), and were given the rôle of covering the withdrawal of the battalion, which by this time was in great danger of being cut off as a result of this enemy ‘pincer’ movement. No. 2 Section under Sgt Keiller was sent to the high ground near a disused windmill, and No. 3 Section under Sgt Lawrie was sent to the high ground to the northwest; both sections were at least 2,000 yds from le-Montant. No. 2 Section on reaching the windmill found it already occupied by the enemy and were therefore forced to take up positions in a cornfield close by. This section was not seriously involved for a time but later withdrew across country under fire. These three also suffered disaster: one came to grief in a boggy hole in a ploughed field, another was set on fire (reason not yet known) and the third had to be destroyed because of a broken gear lever which rendered it immoveable.
At about 0700 hrs 2/Lt. Brooke was ordered out by Major Hutchings to bring in No. 2 and 3 Sections, in order to help the withdrawal of ‘C’ Coy. Brooke firstly gave orders to No. 3 Section, who had not been in contact with the enemy, then went to No. 2 Section; but on reaching the area of the windmill, his carrier Eclipse was put out of action by small-arms fire at short range. Brooke and Pte Duncan returned on foot to Quesnoy-le-Montant; an account of this will be dealt with later. Pte Henderson, his batman, was shot. During the withdrawal of Bn HQ, one carrier under command of Cpl Grant caught up with the ‘A’ Echelon MT of Bn HQ under RSM McLeal and was lost with them; another from this section was only working as a ‘night lock’ and was sent with its driver Pte Sims to the Ordnance depot; this left us with only one carrier out of the original ten in working order. Five LMGs and the majority of unexpended ammunitions were saved.
This short-lived life of the Carrier Platoon taught us one or two things:
- It was found that the engines of these machines, being unprotected on top, were easily hit and knocked out by fragmentations from shellfire.
- Enemy heavy-calibre machinegun fire pierced the armour plating, which was only proof against SAA.
- They were excellent in crops of a convenient height.
- An M/C DR (Motor Cycle Despatch Rider) was necessary in the Carrier Pl.
I have copied out Basil Brooke’s account in full, as it was the first and last time that his platoon went into action as such, and it is therefore of interest.
The actions of the Carrier Platoon in ‘A’ Coy
from 0500 hrs to 0730 hrs, June 5th 1940.
Major Aylmer, at the same time as sending his message to Bn HQ, ordered 2/Lt. Ogilvie to move at once with one section of his platoon on to the east slope of the ridge immediately west of Cahon in order to prevent any enemy infiltration in rear of his company. 2/Lt. Ogilvie and his men were in their new position by 0510 hrs approx. They were at once confronted with an enemy LMG post of five men 70 yds in front of them. There were undoubtedly other enemy sections in the area, but 2/Lt. Ogilvie succeeding in wiping out this post and advanced slightly past it. Whilst engaged on this side, he heard Sgt Inglis’s carrier section in action on his immediate left. He also heard enemy mortar fire which was directed against this carrier section and later turned on him. Capt. Thomson, one of the survivors of Sgt Inglis’s section, stated that heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy by his section, forcing them to withdraw into cover, which thereby released the pressure on 2/Lt. Ogilvie. He explained how well Sgt Inglis had done and also how the carriers were destroyed.
One must not forget that these machines were designed primarily as ‘Carriers’ as their name implies and were therefore meant to transport LMGa and their crews across country under fire. Mounted action was a rôle but only an emergency one, such as this situation was, and there is no doubt that, although costly in material, the Carrier Platoon definitely saved the greater portion of the battalion from being surrounded and cut off, thereby proving the great value of this unit as a small mobile reserve with great firepower.
Events moved quickly that morning. At the same time as No. 1 Section of the Carrier Pl. was ordered out, a message was sent to ‘C’ Company ordering them on to the ridge (see sketch, plate v [Caption "June 5th: 0500 hrs to 0730 hrs"]), in order to deny it to the enemy and to enable ‘A’ Company to be extricated. ‘A’ Coy in the meantime had already sent one section of 2/Lt. Ogilvie’s Platoon on to this ridge. As can be appreciated, they were in a very nasty position and thanked their stars that they had dug slit trenches and piled up the spoil on both sides as they were now firing out of the rear! By 0600 hrs the whole of HQ Coy and Bn HQ personnel were manning positions facing north along the Quesnoy-Saigneville road, and I went to Major Chiang, who had placed a section of his Machine Guns in position near the Quesnoy crossroads. Having helped Hutchy put the men in position, I returned to the château and left with the Colonel by car for Cahon. We tried to find ‘A’ Coy but there were no signs of them other than equipment which they had been obliged to dump, large packs, greatcoats etc. We therefore concluded that they had received the written message to withdraw. I forgot to mention earlier that after a very quick appreciation, the Colonel phoned Bde HQ to say that with the Bde Comd’s permission he was going to withdraw the Bn on to the line of the Miannay-Fresseneville road at once, otherwise we would be cut off. Needless to say this was agreed to, hence our hurried visit to the forward companies in order to give them the earliest notice possible.
We saw Donald on the way to Cahon. He, poor chap, was just shaving and obviously still very tired, as the brunt of the operations on the previous day had fallen on his company. We found John Stansfeld at Lambercourt and gave him the order to withdraw at once, and similarly Colin Dennistoun Sword, who was commanding ‘B’ Company.
We then motored to Miannay and thence along the Fressenneville road, where a hasty reconnaissance was made and the Colonel left me there to put the Companies into their new areas as they arrived (see sketch, plate vi). Bn HQ and HQ Coy had, before we left le-Montant, been given orders to withdraw to Acheux as soon as possible and that ‘C’ Company were to follow as soon as ‘A’ Company were clear of their position. After our reconnaissance had been completed, we went off to the HQ of the 1st Bn Black Watch at Frières to liaise, and we learned too that they were also being attacked on their front, although the main attack on this east front appeared to be directed against Moyenville. When we returned to our new position we saw quite plainly an enormous number of enemy advancing across the high ground which runs from north to south immediately to the east of Miannay, some 2,000 yds away. We sent an urgent message back to Bde HQ for a platoon of Machine Guns, which I delivered to the Bde Comd, and the guns were in position and firing within 20 minutes. I think they were fairly effective although we had no time to watch them.
Sketch map by Capt. Taylor, Intelligence Office 1 Gordons, showing Coy areas at 1200 hrs and from 1300-2300 hrs on June 5th 1940
High Resolution Image:
Bn HQ and ‘C’ Coy transport came through at about 1030 hrs, and ‘D’ Coy were in position by 1100 hrs. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Coys arrived shortly afterwards, ‘A’ Coy having withdrawn along the railway without incident; but ‘B’ Coy were in contact with the enemy when they reached Miannay, and it took them longer to extricate themselves. However, all Companies were in position by 1200 hrs, ‘D’, ‘A’ and ‘B’ on the road and ‘C’ in reserve at Acheux.
During this withdrawal Capt. Alexander, who was commanding ‘C’ Company, was badly wounded by shellfire and was taken prisoner. To date we have had no further reports about him. One can only hope that he is still alive. From stretcher-bearer reports, he was seen being attended to by the Germans. He ordered our own men to leave him lest they should get captured themselves, which they undoubtedly would have been. 2/Lt. C.N. Barker was wounded in the leg by shelling and was sent back to MDS (Medical Dressing Station) that afternoon. The strength of ‘C’ Company on reaching Asheux was reduced to 40 only. It was unfortunate that this company had borne the brunt of the battle during these two days.
Apart from the Carriers, HQ lost the RSM McLeal, the Pioneer Pl. Comd, the Signal Sergeant and others. They all took a wrong turning during the withdrawal and were either shot or taken prisoner somewhere between Quesnoy and Franleu. The RSM was with the SAA truck. No really accurate facts are available. I reached Acheux and was delighted to see Freddy, who had just arrived after returning from sick leave. It was a great joy to see him again. He came just like a breath of fresh air and, being so full of energy and so wonderfully cheerful, he helped to keep us going. He was posted to command ‘C’ Company, who were by this time without an officer as 2/Lt. Than had been wounded in the foot on the previous day. 2/Lt. C.N. Barker was still with his company and did not leave until he had handed over to Capt. Colville.
Having now extricated the Bn, Company dispositions were altered slightly in order to keep the general front intact, and at 1330 hrs they were situated as follows (see sketch, plate vi). Left: ‘D’ Coy, St-Marc. Centre: ‘A’ Coy, Monchaux. Right: ‘B’ Coy, Frières. Bn HQ and ‘C’ Coy remained at Acheux, although it was intended to move to Chépy, but we realised that there was little advantage to be gained by it. On our left were the 4th Black Watch and on our right the 1st Black Watch. To add to one’s difficulties, it was an extremely hot day and the men were exhausted, having had to run nearly the whole way back! All heavy equipment from rifle Companies had to be jettisoned in order to get away in time.
The Colonel and myself visited the 4th Black Watch at Feuquières in the early afternoon and then went round the forward companies, who were settling in. ‘A’ Coy I remember were very short of Bren magazines and we helped to make them up from the Carrier Platoon, which had now become surplus. From 1400-2000 hrs there was comparative quiet, broken by occasional firing. An unsuccessful attempt was made by French tanks during the afternoon to rescue the HQ of the 7th A&SH at Franleu, which had been surrounded. This tank attack was launched from Valines, but, owing to an enemy attack on this position of the front at the same time, the 4th Black Watch attack had to be cancelled as their ‘D’ Company were going to support the French tanks.
The 7th A&SH never got out and the majority of them are here with us now. At 2000 hrs there was considerable firing along the whole of our front and at 2200 hrs that evening the Battalion was ordered to deny its present position to the enemy until 2300 hrs and then withdraw by march route to Aigneville. I might add at this point that our frontages were still out of all proportion in size; each battalion were holding a normal brigade’s front and were therefore powerless to prevent an enemy breakthrough anywhere, had they wished to effect one.
The withdrawal commenced at 2300 hrs and all Companies managed to extricate themselves successfully and arrived at Aigneville at 0200 hrs approx. Hutchy and I left by 8 cwt and the Colonel and Hector by car. The Colonel reconnoitred ‘A’ Coy, ‘D’ Coy and Bn HQ areas, and Hutchy did ‘B’ Coy. Bn HQ was established at Le Monchelet with ‘C’ Coy in reserve. Aigneville from north to south was held by ‘D’, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Coys. The 4th Black Watch were supposed to be on our left with a company at Hocquelus, and the 1st Black Watch were on our right, although there was a considerable gap between battalions which was filled by Machine Guns as far as possible.
Bn HQ was established in a farmhouse which had been evacuated, although the owners came daily to look after their livestock. We arrived here at about 0330 hrs and after a cup of tea went to bed for a few hours. Everyone was very tired as a result of the last two days, which were the most strenuous that we ever experienced.
I went up to the Companies after breakfast at about 1000 hrs and found that all was quiet and there was no sign of the enemy as yet that they had followed up their attack. The Bn frontage was now reduced to 1,800 yds approx., which was a slight improvement. I found that we could not make contact with the 4th Black Watch on our left, but Colin Dennistoun Sword had succeeded in contacting the 1st Black Watch on his right. At about 1130 hrs we saw a large number of men approaching Aigneville from the direction of Feuquières: these turned out to be men of the 4th Black Watch who had got lost. We succeeded in rounding them up and put them on the correct route for their Bn HQ. I met the Colonel in ‘B’ Coy area. He had been siting a platoon of MGs on the right flank in order to strengthen it, and it also happened to be perfect machinegun country. As everything was quiet, I returned to Le Monchelet at about 1230 hrs. I met Brian Hay there, who had been with the (PM) BTO (Battalion Transport Officer) at Acheux that morning. It transpired that on this as on other occasions our ‘B’ Echelon transport had not been informed of our move. He looked none the worse for his trip and reported that Acheux and also Tours were completely deserted. From this information it looked as if the main enemy drive was coming from the north rather than the east.
I left with Jimmy Dunlop after lunch at about 1330 hrs to reconnoitre a covered line of withdrawal via our left flank, in case the enemy should gain the high ground on our right. I found a sunken track leading to Hocquelus that exactly fitted the wheel-span of a 15 cwt truck but with no space to spare. We motored along this, and when we were within 200 yds of Hocquelus we still saw no sign of the 4th Black Watch, who had been reported as being in position there. I told Jimmy to put the truck in a low gear and that we would in all probability have to make a bolt for Aigneville! The road was too narrow to turn about, and I expected that we would come under fire from Hocquelus as soon as we entered it. As things turned out, my inclination proved correct and we had an exciting trip across flat open country from there to Aigneville. Jimmy drove his already battle-worn truck at about 55 mph. When we reached cover, bed and a house we got out to look at the vehicle but only found one bullet-hole through the canvas side-screens about 6 inches behind our heads! I gave the PU (Pick Up describing the vehicle) full marks as it was one of the few occasions when it went for more than 110 yds without misfiring. On reaching ‘D’ Coy left Pl. area at Aigneville, I climbed up a tree from where I could see Hocquelus and Hocquelus Wood immediately to the east of the village. I watched the enemy focusing light artillery into this wood, all horse-drawn material, and it was now obvious that our left flank was the dangerous one. I got the Brens of this platoon to fire on this wood, which was only about 600 yds off, but there was no really satisfactory position from which they could operate. I went back shortly afterwards to report to the Colonel.
The Colonel soon got our Artillery on to Hocquelus and also ordered ‘C’ Company and the Mortar Pl. out on to the high ground north-east of Le Monchelet, with the rôle of protecting our left flank.
Shortly afterwards at about 1500 hrs we received a rather exaggerated message from ‘B’ Coy to say that they were being attacked by tanks. The Colonel sent me off in his car to go up and confirm this, but I found that the tanks were light-recce cars that I saw successfully driven off by the Brens of ‘B’ Coy.
From 1500 hrs onwards all was quiet. Several unsuccessful attempts had been made to gain contact with the 4th Black Watch. At 1800 hrs we received the order to withdraw that night across the River Bresle, crossing this stream at Beauchamps, after denying our present position until 2200 hrs. Soon after receiving this message, we received another countermanding part of it. We were now to cross the Bresle at Gamaches as the bridges at Beauchamps had already been blown. To this day I am not quite clear whether the enemy had already crossed this magnificent anti-tank obstacle first or whether they had penetrated so far round on that flank that we were forced to abandon the Beauchamps move. I think the latter is probably the correct solution, but the Bresle of course in this area was only a stream and it was quite immaterial whether one crossed a bridge or motored through the water! However at 1900 hrs the Colonel withdrew ‘A’ Company and sent them back by march route to Gamaches with orders that they were to form a bridgehead here for the battalion.
At 2200 hrs the remainder of the battalion withdrew in the following order of march. HQ; ‘D’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Coys. All Companies got away without contacting the enemy and by 0200 hrs on June 7th all Companies had safely crossed the bridge at Gamaches, and were put into their positions by Hutchy. Cluny MacPherson saw the bridge blown and thus we were lulled into a false sense of security for 24 hours, to use Walpole’s words.
It is interesting to note here that the general fitness of the battalion was exceptionally high. We had now been nearly seven days without sleep, fighting by day and marching by night, and there were no cases of ‘falling out’ or sickness.