Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The War Diary of 140th (5th London) Army Field Regiment, Royal Artillery: Part 2: 24th May to 29th May, 1940

24th May
The Col. rejoined the Regt. at FORET DE NIEPPE at 0300 hrs. The Bty. was told to rendezvous in a small wood which was found to be a hopeless place and the Bty. did not stay there but returned to the FORET DE NIEPPE. At about 0600 hrs. the C.O. and myself went off to recce. position near MERVILLE (H 4039) and at about 0900 hrs we were ordered to join an advanced guard and march through CAESTRE (H 3852) to CASSEL (H 3057) with a view to ceasing the town before the enemy could reach it. The adv. guard and ourselves arrived by noon. CASSEL was heavily bombed but the Regt. suffered no casualties. 1 Tp. of the Bty. went into action about H 319578, 1 Tp. about H 314572 and a third Tp. about H 319572 and Regtl. H.Q. in the chateau in a wood about H 316572. The Regt. was now grouped under 5 R.H.A. who had one Tp. in action about H 316576. I do not know where the other Tp. was. Lt. Col. A.A.M. Durand, M.C. commanded the two Field Regts. As far as I can recollect the zones allotted to the Tps. were North Tp. from about 270° Northwards and the two Southern Tps. shared from 270° Southwards.

25th May
From R.H.Q. we could see much shelling and bombing activity in HAZEBROUCH (H 3348). CASSEL was again heavily bombed. At the same time there was a big battle going on to the South. I can not remember any movement of enemy Inf. and Tanks being reported during the day in the CASSEL area.

26th May
This was a peaceful day. There were some deserted French 75 mm. guns in CASSEL for some reasons unknown.

27th May
In the morning the enemy attacked all along the front and broke through South of the Regt. posns. About 0900 I personally was proceeding to EECKE (H 3754) where our wagon lines were situated but had only gone 200 yds. when I was turned back with the information that enemy tanks were further down the road. On our front line the 2nd Glosters and 4th Ox Bucks repulsed the morning attack. Owing to a breakdown in communications and doubt as to where our troops were, we missed some fine targets although we did do a fair amount of shooting. Pressure was kept up all day by the enemy and at one time the enemy reached within 50 yds. of the kind of wall that surrounds |CASSEL. At 1400 hrs. I found R.H.Q. was in the F.D.Ls. and I had to form a post on the main CAESTRE road just outside the R.H.Q. with one 18-pr covering the road A/T. defence and six A/T rifles and Lewis Guns covering nearly 180°. About 1800 hrs. the Westernmost Tp. and Boyes Rifles between them knocked out five tanks. The enemy entered the Tp. Officers' Mess and took away the wireless, but although this was only 100 yds. to the flank of the guns they did not attack. Other parties from R.H.Q. formed a defensive line and helped the Bty. to drive off an enemy Inf. attack. During this day the Tp. North of the wood* could not fire on the attack as CASSEL Hill intervened and there was no enemy attack from the North-West so the Tp. Comdr. went to assist the other two Tp. Comdrs. in their C.Ps. At 2100 hrs. R.H.Q. and the two Tps. South of the wood* moved into CASSEL itself as the Inf. could no longer provide any protection for the guns, and A/T. positions were taken up in CASSEL for all round defence. During the morning three enemy Tanks reached the W.L. at EECKE and dispersed R.H.Q. transport.

28th May
The enemy carried out no attacks during this day. The Northernmost Tp. fired continuously on enemy Tps. seen digging in mortars N.W. of CASSEL. There was no other enemy movement seen during the day. The Commanding Officer, Lieut. Col. C.J. Odling, T.D., had been wounded about midnight 27th/28th May and I was therefore now in comd. of the Regt. and I spent most of the day with the Brigade Comdr., 145 Bde.

29th May
An enemy attack was repulsed to the west of CASSEL by the Inf. without the gunners being called upon for assistance. I was at Brigade H.Q. 145 Bde. and was informed that a Signal Sergt. from 48th Div. Signals had arrived telling the Brigadier that the CASSEL garrison was to retire at once to BERGUES (H 2776) and that this message should have reached him during the night 28th/29th May. The Brig. decided that owing to the enemy having nearly surrounded his force he would not make the attempt until darkness. About 1030 hrs. the Brig. asked me to harass the enemy mortars to the N.W. of CASSEL as they were giving the Inf. an unpleasant time. I pointed out to the Brig. that although I was quite prepared to help any firing done by the Regt. would bring down unpleasant consequences to his immediate surroundings but he pointed out that it would be a good thing to raise the tails of the Inf. a bit higher. I therefore took one gun with its detachment and fired on the mortars over open sights. Just as the gun had got the range other enemy mortars got the range of the gun and began plastering us. The result was that two of the detachment were killed and I was knocked unconscious.

The above is the end of my diary as far as I am able to give. The following are points which I think would be of use:-

1. At no time throughout the operations was the Regt. short of food and ammn.

2. I understand that on the afternoon of 29th the Brig. ordered that all guns and equipment be destroyed and the dismounted Regt. to march with his Brigade. Most of them were killed or captured on the 30th.

N. Christopherson (Signature)
Major, R.A.

20th June 1945

* The wood referred to above is the Wood covering MT. DES RECOLLETS (H 3157).

It is worth noting that the breakout by 145 Brigade resulted in the death or capture of most of the men in its ranks. The Brigadier (Brigadier N.F. Somerset) was captured on 29th May. The MOD (Army) website includes the following extract in a history of the brigade:
Despite attempts to hold a number of defensive lines over the next few days, the Brigade was pushed back to Nomain by 24 May. Although it had been hoped that the Brigade could be evacuated through Calais this idea was abandoned on 24 May and the Brigade was ordered to hold defensive positions at Cassel and Hazebrouck at all costs, to protect the withdrawal of the rest of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.). 1 Bucks were attacked in earnest on 27-28 May and suffered so many casualties that they had ceased to be an effective fighting force. Their Battalion HQ and HQ Coy were surrounded and eventually overrun on the evening of the 28th. 4 Ox & Bucks and 2 Glosters were also being subjected to enemy attacks at Cassel from 27 May until 29 May, by which time the town was surrounded and the Germans were penetrating the area. Withdrawal in daylight was impossible, but an evacuation during the evening of 29-30 May was attempted. However, increasing difficulties in keeping contact during the night and continuing enemy attacks resulted in the majority of the remaining personnel being captured or killed before reaching Dunkirk.

2 comments:

  1. Part time soldiers but the courage and dedication to duty of professionals.

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    Replies
    1. Ross Mac,

      I have often read that the BEF of 1914 was the best army Britain ever sent to war, but I often feel that the BEF that was sent to France in 1939 was - by 1940 - at least its equal ... or even better. They may have been beaten, but they all - Regulars and Territorials - seemed to fight like professionals.

      All the best,

      Bob

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