REPORT ON THE OPERATIONS OF 2ND BATTALION IRISH GUARDS IN THE BOULOGNE AREA FROM TUESDAY 21ST MAY, 1940 TO THURSDAY 23RD MAY, 1940.
Scope and content: Report on operations of 2nd. Battalion Irish Guards at Boulogne, 1940 May 21-23.
Covering dates: 1940
MOVE TO DOVER AND EMBARKATION.
1. The order to move from Old Dean Common reached the Battalion Headquarters at about 11 a.m. on 21st May. The Battalion had just reached Camp after night operations, and very few indeed had any appreciable amount of sleep during the previous night. Thus, the order to move that afternoon could not have arrived at a more inconvenient or tiresome moment.
2. Despite their fatigue, the Battalion loaded War Equipment Stores and were ready to move out at the head of the Brigade Column at the appointed time, 15.30 hours.
3. The Battalion reached the quayside at Dover approximately 21.30 hours, and the M.T. Vehicles followed about half-an-hour later.
4. The Battalion was issued with a meal and then began to offload the vehicles and load their contents into the “Queen of the Channel” which was the ship allotted to us. It soon became apparent that the “Queen of the Channel” would not suffice for the Battalion and its equipment. Though this was an obvious fact to all on the quayside at Dover it took over 1½ hours on the telephone to convince the War Office that another ship was required. Eventually a ship named “Mona’s Star” was given to the Battalion and in it embarked No. 1 Company; the Mortar Platoon; the M.T. Personnel; the Pioneer Platoon; and the Signal Stores.
Owing to the late allotment of the “Mona’s Star”, this ship did not sail until some hours after the “Queen of the Channel” and the “Biarritz”, which carried the 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards.
In this way, the Battalion became separated, and was therefore unable to take up the defensive position at Boulogne at the same hour. As a matter of interest, No. 1 Company eventually occupied their Sector only half-an-hour before the first German attack upon it was made.
ARRIVAL AT BOULOGNE.
5. The “Queen of the Channel” berthed at Boulogne at about 06.30 hours on Wednesday 22nd May, 1940.
6. The Battalion disembarked and moved direct to a large shed which already held a certain number of Belgium troops and some Officers’ chargers belonging to the C.-in-C. of the B.E.F.
The Companies were much crowded together and had there been an air-raid at this time there would without doubt have been severe casualties.
Meanwhile, unloading Stores from the “Queen of the Channel” had begun at the quayside, and the M.T. personnel were collecting the transport vehicles which had been placed at the disposal of the Battalion.
7. At approximately 07/30 hours, the Brigade Commander, having had a short conference with a Brigadier Griffin, proceeded on a reconnaissance accompanied in the first instance by the Brigade Major, Officer Commanding 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, and Lt. Hornung, Intelligence Officer, 2nd Battalion Irish Guards. As a result of this reconnaissance, the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards was allotted a Sector beyond the village of Outreau (See Appendix “B”)
8. Before leaving the quay at Boulogne, orders had been left under which the Battalion was to move up to Outreau as quickly as possible, and to disperse in that village, each Company being responsible for its own protection, until further orders were issued.
9. Between 11.15 hours and 13.00 hours, the Commanding Officer took Company Commanders individually to their Company Sectors, and issued orders for the immediate occupation of the position. Companies having learnt a hard lesson at the Hook of Holland, lost not a minute in digging quickly and deeply. In order to avoid any delays in beginning to dig, each Section carried with it a small number of picks and shovels. The full quantity of these implements could not, of course, be delivered to Companies until they had arrived up from the quayside.
OPERATIONS, WEDNESDAY 22ND MAY, 1940.
10. Before mid afternoon, reports had begun to reach Battalion Headquarters of isolated enemy vehicles having been seen on the ridge which overlooks Outreau from the South, and at 15.30 hours shell fire commenced on No. 1 Company’s Sector, ie. on the left flank of the Battalion. It seemed to be directed at an anti-tank gun which had just been placed in position. No damage was done, and the shelling soon ceased, but the anti-tank gun was forced to move to a position which was less favourable for the covering of the lower road into Boulogne.
11. During the afternoon, Lt. Peter Reynolds, No. 4 Company, was dispatched, as the result of instructions received from Headquarters 20th Guards Brigade, on a motor patrol to the town of Nesles. The patrol consisted of two motor cyclist D.R.’s, and a motor car containing Lt. Reynolds and three armed men. The object of the patrol was to discover whether the French were, in fact, holding a position between an enamoured vehicle, along narrow roads, and through unknown country, ran a very considerable risk of being ambushed and lost. Despite this risk, the Patrol returned safely, having seen neither French nor enemy soldiers, though it had been fired at from a wood just to the North of Nesles. I consider that the greatest credit is due to Lt. Reynolds for the manner in which he conducted this Patrol.
12. At approximately 17.30 hours, shelling recommenced on the left of the Battalion’s front, and this shelling was followed by an attack which was accompanied by tanks, but which was not heavily pressed. The leading tank advancing up the road towards Outreau was engaged by an anti-tank gun commanded by 2/Lt. Eardley-Wilmot. Seven direct hits were obtained and the tank came to an abrupt stop and never moved again. As the result of a certain amount of confused fighting, No. 1 Company’s advance platoon on the lower road near the river was to all intents and purposes isolated from the remainder of No. 1 Company.
13. At approximately 18.15 hours another platoon of No. 1 Company was attacked and at the same time a short air-raid took place over the village. The situation then became quieter and remained so for about 2 hours. It will be noticed that up to this time the only Company which had been engaged was No. 1, which held the left of the Battalion area.
14. At 20.45 hours enemy shelling recommenced, and continued throughout the night until 01.15 hours. This shelling was heavier than that previously experienced and was more spread over the front held by the Battalion.
15. At about 22.00 hours a more vicious attack was made on No. 1 Company and as a result of it, the forward platoon on the lower road was out-flanked and but a few escaped from it. The effect of this enemy manoeuvre was to partially open the lower road into Boulogne. For some time the impression was prevalent that the enemy were trying to pass troops down this road into the down, but no confirmation of this can be obtained, and it becomes still more unlikely that any such thing occurred when it is appreciated that no reports ever reached the Battalion of any German troops having been seen in the town during the night 22nd / 23rd May.
16. At the time of this night attack, no communication with Brigade Headquarters existed other than by D.R., as the civil telephone lines had been cut or disconnected earlier in the day. To send D.R’s was clearly a dangerous proceeding, as it was not then known whether or not the enemy had managed to infiltrate through into the town of Boulogne, through which D.R’S would have to pass on their way to Brigade Headquarters on the other side of the river. However, it had become imperative that the Brigade Commander should be informed of the position as it then was, and two D.R.’s , one of them a W.O. 3, were dispatched. These, after many hours on the road, failed to locate Brigade Headquarters, and thus, the Brigade Commander did not receive the information which it considered so important that he should have, until he came in person to Battalion Headquarters in the early hours of Thursday 23rd May.
17. Before the night attack on No. 1 Company had begun, the advisability of moving additional anti-tank guns from the right of the Battalion Sector to that held by No. 1 Company, was very seriously considered. It was decided however that it would be wiser not to make any such changes, because in the first place the enemy had full observation over the Battalion front, and would, without doubt, have seen the move taking place. In the second place, most of the vehicles available in the Battalion Area were being employed as road blocks, and it would have been a lengthy business to extract the type of vehicle required, to load the gun on to it, to transfer it to the new Sector, and to place it in a new position. Lastly, it was appreciated that the enemy having seen the move taking place, might well have altered his plans and attacked the right of the Battalion, where the country was open and where no anti-tank obstacles, other than road blocks, existed.
18. Whilst the attack on No. 1 Company was taking place, an order was issued to the personnel of the carrier platoon, to move up into the village of Outreau and block all roads. This step was taken in order to prevent any further penetration into the Battalion’s position, should the attack on No. 1 Company continue to be pressed. In point of fact, this did not occur, and the night after about 23.00 hours was fairly quiet except for intermittent shelling. Nevertheless the position was far from comfortable, the main anxiety being to restore the situation in No. 1 Company’s Sector as soon as the true position was disclosed at daylight. The difficulty however, of rectifying anything that might be wrong, was that the Battalion was spread over a very wide front (3650 yards), and that all Companies were on the line. Thus the only reserves available, some of which were naturally required for defence of the Battalion Headquarter Area, were specialist groups such as the Mortar Platoon, Signallers, and M.T. Personnel, whose training and employment did not make them suitable for the purposes of counter-attack. Further, it was difficult to envisage counter-attacks when no supporting arms of any sort were available to the Battalion. Had there been guns, or mortars, or air support ready to hand, the position would have been far easier, and I do not believe that there would have been great difficulty in completely re-establishing No. 1 Company’s position on the morning of Thursday, 23rd May.
OPERATIONS THURSDAY 23RD MAY, 1940.
19. Battalion Headquarters stood to from 02.30 hours to 04.30 hours, as it was felt that the enemy would most probably renew his attack at about this time. However, he did not do so until about 07.30 hours. On this occasion the attack again started on the front of No. 1 Company, but quickly spread to that of No. 4 Company, with particular reference to the Platoon holding the high ground near the reservoir and trigonometrically point. This platoon was commanded by Lt. Reynolds, and its position had already been rendered somewhat precarious by the destruction of No. 1 Company’s forward platoon, which had been in position immediately to its left.
20. The attack was accompanied by heavy shelling, both from guns and mortars, and this shelling, taking it by and large, went on almost without cessation throughout the day. Tanks were employed, and were instrumental in finally defeating the extremely gallant resistance which was put up by Lt. Reynolds’ platoon.
21. The situation at 09.00 hours was that No. 1 Company had withdrawn with Company Headquarters and all the men they could collect from the forward platoons to the centre of Outreau village, where they took up an invaluable position covering the road leading down the hill into Boulogne, and the road leading to Battalion Headquarters. Before this withdrawal had taken place, two events had occurred. The first had been the order to the Carrier Platoon to move forward from their position in the village to reinforce No. 1 Company. In carrying out this order, it appears that Lt. H.S. Leveson moved forward himself with one section of the carriers and that his appreciation of the situation led him to the conclusion that he could best carry out his task by moving towards the area held by Mr. Reynolds on the left of No. 4 Company’s Sector. I am of the opinion that he was entirely right in his decisions, thought in the event, and perhaps fortunately, it seems that he was unable to move forward with more than the section he had with him at the time he went up to make his reconnaissance.
At or about 08.45 hours Capt. L.D. Murphy, M.C., Commanding No. 4 Company, reported that he thought it would be best if Lt. Reynolds’ platoon were withdrawn to the southern outskirts of Outreau village. I acquiesced in his opinion, and instructed him to get the platoon back. Capt. Murphy accompanied by Capt. P.F.I. Reid, made the most strenuous efforts to get in touch with Mr. Reynolds, but owning to the great volume of fire which the enemy were bringing to bear on the platoon, and owing also to the fact that the platoon was by then almost entirely surrounded, he found himself unable to reach them. There is no doubt whatsoever that no-one at this time could have reached that platoon area alive.
22. At about 09.15 hours, Officer Commanding 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, accompanied by Lt. John Marnan, Signalling Officer, 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, visited Company Headquarters of No. 4 Company. Instructions were given to Capt. Murphy to throw back his left flank in order to prevent possible enemy penetration between the position held by No. 4 Company and that then held by No. 1 Company, whose forward posts, it will be remembered, had already been overrun, and destroyed. Further, Capt. Murphy was promised a platoon from No. 2 Company, in order to help strengthen his defensive flank.
The Commanding Officer and Lt. Marnan, having left No. 4 Company’s Headquarters, moved direct to No. 2 Company, where they saw Capt. Madden. The reinforcements of one platoon for No. 4 Company was ordered to proceed and was shown exactly where to go.
23. At approximately 10.00 hours, No. 4 Company was forced to withdraw from the southern outskirts of Outreau village to a line running level with Battalion Headquarters. No. 2 Company on the right of No. 4, conformed to this move. No. 3 Company on the extreme right of the Battalion, still continued to maintain their original position. Thus, at this time, the line ran from the post held by No. 1 Company in the village of Outreau itself, covering the road down the hill to the quay, and the road leading to Battalion Headquarters, through some fields which gave a field of fire of some 150 yards on to the northern exits from Outreau, and thence to the original position held by No. 3 Company.
24. At about this time, Major J.F. Ross was sent back to reconnoitre a further position in rear, for the Companies, while Major Lindsay carried out a reconnaissance for a position behind the Companies which could be occupied by Battalion Headquarters. It was my intention that this new line should be held by three Companies only, and that No. 2 Company should be withdrawn into reserve in order to hold an intermediate position through which any further withdrawal could take place. However, the time in which to organize such a distribution was never really available, and further it had not at this stage been appreciated that Nos. 1 and 4 Companies had already been reduced to almost microscopic numbers.
25. Companies withdrew to the new position which lay astride the light railway running down through Boulogne at 10.30 hours. Battalion Headquarters followed approximately one hour later, and No. 1 Company moved back from its post in the village somewhere about 11.45 hours.
This post of No. 1 Company had proved invaluable. They had been in close contact with the enemy for nearly two hours at a range of not much more than 30-50 yards. Throughout that time the posts had exchanged bursts of fire one with the other, and all attempts to outflank No. 1 Company’s position had each in turn been defeated. In my opinion, the holding of this post by No. 1 Company, which might quite easily have been somewhat demoralized by the very heavy losses which the Company had suffered, reflects the very greatest credit on Capt. C.R. McCausland and 2/Lt. G.G. Romer, and on the other ranks who held the post. I was very apprehensive as to whether they would be able to withdraw from such close contact without further heavy losses. The fact that they were able to do so shows thar they must have made the fullest and most effective use of the ground.
26. The position astride the light railway was reached by the bulk of the Battalion between 10.30 and 11.00 hours, and there the Companies remained until approximately 13.00 hours. Within these times the Commanding Officer accompanied by Sir John Reynolds, Irish Guards, the Liaison Officer with Headquarters 20th Guards Brigade, visited No. 3 Company, which held the right of the Battalion Sector, and order them withdraw in order to conform with the new position. 2/Lt. P.D. Lindsay accompanied the Commanding Officer and remained to indicate to Capt. Finlay, O.C. No. 3 Company, the line which he was to occupy. At about 13.00 hours the Battalion withdrew further towards the centre of Boulogne town, moving down what appeared to be a fairly important street with its head and tail protected by Brens and Anti-tank Rifles. It should be noted that during the stand on the railway line, a great deal of firing had taken place, and that when the further withdrawal began, some of the Bren guns were not properly fit for further firing owing in some cases to the heat of the barrels and in others to the dirt which had accumulated in the barrels.
27. During the withdrawal down the road, fairly severe shelling began, and it soon became apparent that if the Battalion remained in the street, numerous casualties were certain to be inflicted. The order was therefore given for Companies to seek shelter in the houses on either side of the road; that N.C.O’s should be ready in each house to bring out the men the moment orders were issued and that Brens and Anti-tank rifles were to be left protecting the roads in which the Battalion were sheltering, and the roads leading into it. After a short time the shelling ceased and almost immediately afterwards enemy tanks were heard approaching at a very slow rate down the road. It is reported by a P.S.M. that these tanks were preceded by a man dressed in civilian clothes who waved his hands and called out that the tanks were French ones. These tanks were it is thought, mediums, and the hour at which they were first heard was approximately 14.30 hours. There were not more than 5 of them in all. Three or four of them passed down the hill towards the quay, but according to information received later from outside sources they never penetrated on to the quay. The tanks that did not move down the hill remained as look-outs in the street in which the Battalion were sheltering. These latter tanks fired some shots at the doors of the houses in their immediate vicinity, but it is not known that any casualties were caused by this fire.
28. It will be appreciated that the Battalion was in the most difficult and perilous situation, and that the only real hope was that the Germans would not search the buildings or continue their firing for any length of time. As events turned out, they did neither, for within a quarter-of-an-hour or so, the vehicle that had passed down the hill into the town remounted it and all the tanks moved away out of the Battalion Area. However, it was not known for certain that some tanks or perhaps infantry accompanying the tanks had not been left in the lower limits of the town, and therefore before committing the Battalion on to a further move through the streets a reconnaissance patrol was sent down to the quay in order to make sure that it was clear. This patrol met Lt. Sir John Reynolds, who reported that no enemy had been seen on the quayside. Whilst this patrol was away, two small tanks re-passed through the area in the Battalion was hidden. These vehicles neither paused nor fired. Lt. J.D. Hornung who saw these tanks, described them as very small indeed, but despite this fact, a direct hit on the back of one of them from an anti-tank rifle seemed to have made no impression whatsoever.
When the news that the quayside was clear reached the Battalion, orders were issued for the final move down, and the Battalion marched with an advance guard, which was ready to drop Brens and anti-tank rifles at any side roads which might be held, and with a rear guard protecting its back. One diversion from the route originally selected had to be made owing to sniping which came from an upstairs window in a side street, but apart from this no difficulties were encountered, and the Battalion reached the line of houses on the quayside at 16.00 hours. The roads leading to the quayside were at once blocked with vehicles and barrels, and the blocks themselves covered by automatic weapons.
29. Very shortly after reaching the quayside, information reached the Battalion from Brigade Headquarters that the order to evacuate had been cancelled. Though no orders were issued consideration was being given to the patrols which would have had to be sent out into the town again, and to the area in which the Battalion could most profitably spend what would have been a most uncomfortable night.
30. It is quite clear, now that the events are over, that though the Battalion felt entirely entrapped while in the houses with the tanks cruising outside them, the effect on the enemy of finding the streets deserted when they expected to find them filled with troops, must, to say the least, have been very disquieting. They must, I believe, have felt that they were moving into an ambush of some sort, and that the roads were mined, or that we had anti-tank weapons waiting to deal with them once they had reached a certain point. I am convinced that if some such thoughts had not been in their minds, they would not have been content to pass through the Battalion Area without a rigorous search of the houses accompanied by grenade throwing and firing from the guns carried on the tanks themselves. Had such a search taken place, I do not see how the Battalion could have escaped from the predicament in which they were without severe losses.
31. The order that the evacuation was not to take place was itself cancelled and in its place, an operation order detailing the manner in which troops were to reach the quayside was issued, though the hour at which the move towards the ships was to start was not stated, as at that time it was not known when ships would be alongside.
32. At about 18.45 hours a very extensive air battle took place over the town, it being said by some authorities, that over a hundred enemy machines were in the air, with about ten to twenty five of our own fighters. So far as the Battalion was concerned, the results of the air battle were that the enemy machines were kept high in the air, and that no bombs were dropped on or near the houses occupied by Companies.
33. At about 20.00 hours an order reached the Battalion that evacuation was to take place forthwith; the Battalion was to move to the quayside in groups, and that troops were to embark as and when accommodation on destroyers became available without regard to Companies or Platoons.
34. The Battalion moved as ordered to the quayside, and the bulk of it sheltered on the lower level of the quay on the inner (southern) side. Two destroyers were allowed to berth alongside the quay without any interference, but as the third destroyer H.M.S. Verity approached the quay, extremely heavy fire suddenly broke out from guns and tanks on the northern side of the harbour. H.M.S. Verity was hit and set alight amidships by the first salvo, and it was clearly the enemy’s intention to sink her while she was still in the narrowest part of the Channel and thus block the way by which other destroyers would have to come in, and by which the destroyers already berthed alongside, would have to steam out. The Commander of the Verity however, completely saved the situation by going astern at full speed, firing with every gun that he could bring to bear, and altogether ignoring the fact that the quicker he steamed the quicker the flames spread. There is no doubt that the Units on the quayside owe a great debt to the Officers and crew of the Verity for their great courage and bold seamanship. The same debt is owed to the officers and crews of the remaining crews who remained alongside the quay embarking wounded and unwounded.
Having failed to sink the Verity, the guns and tanks turned their attention on the quay, and for the next forty five minutes or so, kept up a tornado of fire. The range was so short that direct hits were almost invariably obtained, and had not the quay been extremely well built, there is little doubt that a breach would have been made and that many casualties would have been caused amongst the troops sheltering in close proximity on the lower level. The noise of the direct hits above ones head and the firing from the destroyers close alongside was intense, and provided a great test for the troops who were waiting to embark, and in front of whose eyes lay the decks of the destroyers. In my opinion it says a very great deal for the discipline of the troops concerned that no move of any sort or kind was made towards the destroyers until the order was given to do so, and that when that order was given, the move was carried out slowly and efficiently.
As regards the Naval ships, it is not too much to say that for the second time within ten days the Battalion owed its existence to the magnificent conduct of the Dover Destroyers.
35. The bulk of the Battalion left Boulogne at about 21.30 hours; reached Dover about midnight; entrained for Fleet and reached Tweseldon Camp at about 6.30 on the morning of May 24th.
Edited by dbf, 09 April 2013 - 07:53 PM.