“THE RECONNAISSANCE CORPS”
Broadcast in the BBC’s Home and Overseas Services
ANN: Battle Honour. The eighth of our programmes telling of the officers and men who in this war have maintained and added further glory to the fighting traditions of the British Forces. This programme tells of – The Reconnaissance Corps – and the story is told by Richard Dimbleby.
DIMBLEBY: The badge of the Reconnaissance Corps is a spearhead flanked by jagged lightning flashes. It isn’t yet a familiar badge, although those of you who have a son or husband in this corps will know it well. The rest of us must be forgiven if it is still new to us. But out there in Sicily and North Africa – it has already taken its place beside other symbols which have earned particular fame in this war – like the wings of the RAF – the blue parachute of the paratroops – the winged horses of the Airborne men – and the anchor, tommy-gun and wings of Combined Operations – all of these symbols which are worn by the men who are the spearhead and lightning of this new warfare which we are exploiting so successfully. The Reconnaissance Corps are new. It was formed to exploit fast moving mechanised warfare – blitz warfare – and to act as the spearhead of the army. The Corps itself was formed on January the 8th, 1941, and it was envisaged as a force which would screen an advancing army, acting as its eyes and ears – and, when necessary, would travel and fight at a speed of forty or fifty miles an hour. Its vehicles were to be fast armoured cars, bren-gun carriers and motor cycles; its communication – radio; its armament – anti-tank guns, mortars, and every type of light automatic weapon the army could provide. Th men of the Corps were to be specialists – expert map readers, able to find their way in unknown country, and by night – expert in woodcraft and camouflage – able to stay out in No-man’s land and observe and understand enemy movements – capable of estimating quickly enemy strength and fire-power. Since much information would be useless unless it could be got back to headquarters quickly, the radio operators had to be specially trained too – and the drivers, since they were to operate neatly in enemy territory, were to be particularly skilled in maintenance and repair – all had to be as tough as nails – and on top of that, because of the danger they would run, every man had to learn another man’s job. Here is a story which explains just why that was.
OFF: It happened in North Africa. We were near Medjez El Bab when we get a radio message ... (fading) asking us to find ...
VOICE: (radio) Hallo, King One. Spot farmhouse in valley west of your position – 726390 – I repeat 726390 – is this held by enemy. Over.
OFF: (radio) Hello Dog. Will go forward and report. Out. (ordinary voice – reading map) 7263990 ... that’s the farm we spotted yesterday. See anything then, sergeant?
SERGT: No Sir
OFF: Okay. (radio) Hallo Able One and Able Two. Go forward to farmhouse ... (fading) at 726390 and report ...
OFF: Our squadron was operating three miles ahead of the infantry and this farmhouse stood in the line of a flanking movement they were planning back at Division. Two heavy armoured cars were sent off – dodging among the thick little bushes which studded the valley. They get well forward unseen – but there was no sign of enemy occupation. So they raced across the open fields to the farmyard to make sure. An anti-tank gun opened fire on them and the leading car was knocked out. Then the second car was hit and the commander and radio operator wounded. Only the driver was left. But he raced his car close up to the farmhouse, stuck his tommy-gun through the visor slit and wiped out the gun crew. Then he swung round the farmhouse spotting the other guns that fired on him, and raced away again. He was hit four times and the armoured car almost wrecked before he got out of range. But he was able to radio back the information the Commander wanted – the type of guns the enemy had, their positions and just how this strong point could best be attacked. Because this ‘last man’ had been trained as an all-rounder in spite of our casualties the German trap was sprung and the farmhouse was cleared up that afternoon before the main body of the infantry moved forward.
DIM: Well – it was this type of scouting and fighting that was envisaged when the Reconnaissance Corps was formed just two and a half years ago. A training camp was set up, and as the men became fully trained regiments were formed, and the first of these regiments sailed on November the 1st last year to take part in the invasion of North Africa. And it was one of those Reconnaissance Regiments which made first contact with the Germans. Within nine days of landing they had shot ahead into Tunisia and to the outskirts of Bizerta itself to seek information. And on November the 17th they met the Germans outside Bizerta. To the men of the Regiment it was a great honour –but it was one that had to be bought at a high price – for their armoured cars were no match for the line of German heavy tanks they met that day. They fought – and they held on day after day – fighting for the information about the enemy strength which they had raced nearly four hundred miles ahead to get. The fight was grim and unequal and only glorious in retrospect. For it was to take our main armies five months to reach Bizerta and that battleground to which the fast moving Recce had struck forward within nine days. When the 1st Army and the Americans began to move forward some of the Regiments were given another task for which they were trained. They had to guard the flank of the advance and, as the order put it “to protect the army by denying one thousand square miles of territory to the enemy.” One sergeant who won the DCM while helping to “deny” that territory to the enemy said this:
SERGT: That thousand square miles took some looking after. It was a devil’s playground – but we had fun – out there on our own. We were the first to enter Goubellat, Pont du Fahs, Bou Arada, El Aroussa, Enfidaville and Depienne, as we swept along the army’s southern flank. And we even got in to Bir Meherga, but we weren’t strong enough to hold it on our own.
DIM: Bir Meherga. Some names are soon forgotten, but Bir Meherga lies in a valley just twenty five miles south of Tunis, and to the north of Pont du Fahs. Through the valley runs a river, a road and a single track railway. And in the same valley is Depienne which had an airfield. The valley as the scene of five months of bitter fighting. But strange, unused names are often soon forgotten, and those were crowded days for the Reconnaissance squadrons operating ih that No-man’s-land – moving like a will-o’-the –wisp over those thousands of miles of unknown country. On December the 4th for instance an order came through to one Reconnaissance Regiment out there to rescue the men of the Parachute Battalion who had been driven back from that Depienne airdrome and who were fighting their way through the hills. The Recces turned aside to search for them and here is an extract from the diary of one of the officers.
OFF 2: December 4th: We have been in action all day, but we had little success against the enemy’s heavy armour. We found one hundred and fifty of the Parachute Battalion west of Medjez.
December 5th: Today we made a sweep as far as Ksar-Tyr. We reported three enemy tanks and eight armoured cars seen making for Pont du Fahs. And during the day collected eighteen more of our parachutists.
December 6th: Today we found a farm where enemy armoured cars were lying. Our mortars fired on them. The Germans seemed vastly annoyed.
December 7th: B Squadron was dive bombed by JU88’s this morning; they lost four armoured cars and one carrier; our signal stores truck damaged during a skirmish near Goubellet.
DIM: That is just four days of notes from a diary which told of a month of incessant fighting before the rains came and the regiment – undaunted but limping from loss of men and equipment – was brought back to re-fit and rest before going out again into No-man’s-land. It is always No-man’s-land for them because their task is to find the enemy’s positions and tell headquarters by radio exactly where they are – then, perhaps, to stay out there and spy on him and tell headquarters his gun positions, to raid outposts and take prisoners and question them – and, if necessary to go in and fight for all the information which an army commander should have before him when planning an attack. There is a story of a Recce motorcycle which broke down behind enemy lines. The despatch rider hid it in a ditch and found his way back on foot. A few days later he set out in a truck to rescue his motorcycle but as he got near the ditch he saw two German soldiers settling down for a rest just about a hundred yards from the hidden cycle. The despatch rider parked his truck and, armed only with a revolver, he crawled up behind them.
GERM 1: (fade in) Cigarette, Willi?
GERM 2: Thank you.
GERM 1: Fine to be stretching your legs again, eh?
GERM 2: Ye-ah (suddenly) What the ...
GERMS: What the ... why ...
DR: (firmly) Quiet. One sound and I shoot. Understand?
GERMS: (quiet chorus) Yes. Yes.
DR: (quietly) Give me that tommy-gun. Thank you. And your revolver. Thank you. Any other arms?
GERM 1: No
DR: All right. Now get down – and crawl – like this – quickly. Now, one shout and you’re dead. This way
(twigs snapping and heavy breathing)
Easy. Here’s the truck. Into it. Quietly. Now ... one move and your numbers up. Understand?
GERMS: (quiet chorus) Yes. Yes.
DR: You’d better.
(car engine starts quietly on self-starter: splutters)
(engine ticks over quietly again)
That’s better. (to prisoners) Now ...hold tight.
(Truck races forward: fade)
DIM: The DR drove his two prisoners through their own outposts and delivered them to his squadron commander. And that night the despatch rider went back again for his motorcycle. Stories like that keep coming back from the Recce. Another task which falls to them is seizing and holding important points on the line of advance. Seizing a bridge before the enemy can demolish it. Seizing a farm or a hill before the enemy can fortify it. One troop with the 1st Army was given the task of racing forward and seizing a bridge beside a village. The armoured cars and carriers raced forward and seized the bridge. Then they decided that the best way to hold it was to make their own bridgehead. They crossed the river and dug weapon pits, posted sentries and settled down to wait for the enemy. He didn’t come. So they sent a fast armoured car patrol out to look for him. It found him ten miles away and heading for the bridge. The patrol spied out his strength and retired to the bridge with all the information they needed. The defences were strengthened and camouflaged. The unsuspecting column was kept under constant observation and as it reached the bridgehead it was practically wiped out. These qualities of the Reconnaissance Regiments – fast-moving hard-hitting, almost self-contained – have played an outstanding part in the advance of our armies in Tunisia and in Sicily ... but perhaps the most light-hearted story – for they are light-hearted men – came in the closing stages in North Africa when our army had broken through into Cap Bon Peninsula where the Nazis were trying to stage a Dunkirk. The Recce was the spearhead again and today that drive is known as the “Cap Bon Stakes”.
OFF: The “Cap Bon Stakes” were run on the eleventh of May. Two of our squadrons pushed forward at first light – spraying the hedges with tommy-gun fire – and catching the enemy rear elements still unprepared for battle. As they raced along – well ahead of the main body of the army – white flags began to appear and thousands of Nazis wanted to surrender. The squadron commanders – one on each flank – just ‘thumbed’ them back and raced on – for they had a private bet on as to who would complete the course first. Soon the leading cars were flat out – doing over fifty miles an hour. The speed and cheek of the race seemed to shatter the Nazis. They had no time to lay land mines – their favourite trick. Thousands of mines were found later, already primed, but never laid. The sappers who should have laid them just surrendered and sat down by the roadside as the two squadrons raced past. Germans on the beaches turned round to stare at them – awed by what they took to be the speed of our advance. By 3.30 that afternoon the two squadrons had completed their encircling tour and linked up just south of Menzel Temine. I won’t say who won – but at that moment practically all resistance on the peninsula had ceased.
DIM: Perhaps that’s a light-hearted story – but it was their way of doing their job and they carried the same jaunty spirit to Sicily – scouting across the Catanian Plain ahead of the army – seeking out the defence points and gun positions on Mount Etna – searching farmhouses – finding a way round strong points – passing back information that the army commander needed every minute of the campaign – and fighting for that information. That is their job – the men of this new corps – the commanders, gunners, drivers, radio operators and assault troops – whose badge tells their story so plainly – a spearhead flanked by jagged lightning.
ANN: Battle Honour. The Reconnaissance Corps
This transcript of a BBC Broadcast is to be found at the end of the Dec 1943, 56 Recce War Diary
Edited by Recce_Mitch, 06 May 2013 - 05:54 PM.