Narrators' notes: Summary of events 1940 May 10 - June 3, FRANCE & FLANDERS

Discussion in '1940' started by dbf, Dec 13, 2011.

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    CAB 106/284

    Context: War Cabinet and Cabinet Office: Historical Section: Archivist and Librarian Files: (AL Series), WAR OF 1939-1945: France and Flanders - 1939-1940, Narrators' notes and papers
    Scope and content: Summary of events 1940 May 10-June 3, includes account of operations of 23rd. (Northumbrian) Division and 4th. and 7th. Battalions, Royal Tank Regiment.
    Covering dates: 1940

    Courtesy of Drew
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    Advance to DYLE, Defence of DYLE, Occupation of ESCAUT position.

    1 CORPS (1, 2 and 48 DIVISIONS) and 2 CORPS (3 and 4 DIVISIONS), preceded by 12 L. and Div. Cav. Regiments, advanced by M.T. to River DYLE and occupied position from RIGHT to LEFT 2 - 1 - 4 - 3 Divs., being in touch with French 1st Army on RIGHT and Belgian Army on LEFT.

    Army Tank Brigade railed to FORET DE SOIGNIES.

    12 L. and Div. Cav. Regiments were engaged by enemy A.F.V.s and withdrew behind River DYLE.

    5 DVISION started to advance by march route from AMIENS training area, was subsequently picked up by M.T., and moved forwards to occupy the DENDRE position - in accordance with original plan. Almost immediately after arrival at River DENDRE, Div. was moved by M.T. to area South West of BRUSSELS in support of 1 CORPS.

    50 DIVISION moved by M.T. to relieve 5 Div. on R. DENDRE, preparing all crossings from demolition.

    3 CORPS occupied line of River ESCAUT with 44 Div. in NORTH and 42 Div. in SOUTH. During this period there was considerable alarm about parachutists on unoccupied aerodromes South of SOMME; 23 Div. and ROYAL ENGINEERS units dealt with this, and parts of 12 and 46 Divs., infantry being on a low scale of armament, were brought up by rail. One Infantry Brigade 46 Div. took over road control and anti-sabotage duties on roads between River DENDRE and River ESCAUT.

    Failure of Belgians to hold MAASTRICHT bridges. Reports of break-through of ARDENNES and MEUSE.

    By now, Air Component fighters practically at an end (50 were left), and gradually more and more fighters were put at our disposal from home. No day bombers were available. Difficulties of getting B.E.F. night bomber tasks reconciled with requirements from French sources. Medium Air Recce impossible without escort.
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    Withdrawal of 1, 2 and 3 CORPS to Frontier Defences - Defence of ARRAS.

    By 16th May, the extent of the German break-through on River MEUSE was realised, and we heard the enemy had reached the River OISE. Moreover, with the loss of MAASTRICHT and their subsequent withdrawal, it became evident that the Belgians were unlikely to hold at all.

    1 CORPS swung back on RIGHT during previous night to LA LASHE river to conform with withdrawal French 1st Army. Night 16/17th, 1 and 2 CORPS moved back to the line of River SENNE. During this withdrawal, German M.Cs and Armoured Cs. attempted to get behind 1 CORPS between the FORET DE SOIGNIES and HAL. Defensive flank by 48 Div. 1 Armd. Recce Bde ordered forward from ARRAS had arrived near LILLE.

    Withdrawal of 1 and 2 CORPS from River SENNE to River DENDRE carried out night 17/18th May. 50 Div. during 17th May occupied chief crossings over DENDRE, until arrival back of main bodies.

    Units were withdrawn from 42 Div. on the ESCAUT to forum MACFORCE which had the task of holding bridges EAST of DOUAI from CARVIN to MAULDE, in order to cover our Southern flank.

    5 Div. withdrawn to G.H.Q. reserve.

    Army Tank Bde. during this period moved back by march route to area South of LILLE in G.H.Q. reserve, as no flats available.

    17th May - Command Post formed MACFORCE

    Comd. - Major-General MASON MACFARLANE (D.M.I.)
    Tps. - 127 Inf. Bde. with Sigs. and L.A.D.
    1 Army Tank Bde.
    5 R.H.A.
    100 Fd. Coy.
    1 A.M.P.C.
    (later some units of 46 Div.).

    By evening, this force was on SCARPE from RACHES to ST. AMAND, one gun or weapon on each bridge, and sent recce elements consisting of arm. carriers forward. Gen. GEORGES, in an attempt to stop the gap, ordered 23 Div. to take over line RUYALCOURT - ARLEUX on the CANAL DU NORD, although no FRENCH troops ever came up on their flanks. 23 Div. was put on this general line by rear G.H.Q. (ARRAS) by evening, 18 guns being provided from R.A. BASE DEPOT.

    18th May - PETREFORCE formed. Object - Defence of ARRAS.

    Comd. - Major-General PETRE (Cmd. 12 Div.) formed in afternoon.
    Tps. - 23 Div. (Fd. Coys. and Bns. only.)
    1 W.G. - ARRAS Garrison
    9 W. YORKS - ARRAS Garrison
    Some R.E. unit.s
    COOKE's Composite Sqn. of Tanks.

    ARRAS Garrison was defending the town with COOKE's Sqn. SOUTH and WEST of ARRAS, and detachments of 12 Div. also pushed into SAILLY, ALBERT and DOULENS.

    Night 18/19th May - Withdrawal from DENDRE to ESCAUT carried out successfully.
    ESCAUT position held:-
    Right - 1 CORPS with 48 Div. and 42 Div. up (2 in reserve).
    Centre - 2 CORPS with 1 and 3 Divs. up (50 Div in reserve).
    Left - 3 CORPS with 4 and 44 Divs. up (5 Div. G.H.Q. in reserve).

    19th May
    25 Inf. Bde. of 50 Div. moved by Tp. Carrying Coy. to extend flank held by MACFORCE from RACHES to LA BASSE and placed under command MACFORCE.

    20 May - FRANKFORCE formed in VIMY area.
    Comd. - Major-General FRANKLYN (Comd. 5 Div.)
    5 and 50 Divs. (less 25 Inf. Bde.)
    1 Army Tank Bde.
    12 L.

    21st May
    On receipt of an order from French Army to attempt to close gap, 5 and 50 Divs. and 1 Army Tank Bde. attacked Southwards on either side of ARRAS, with a D.L.M. of French 7th Army supporting the Right flank, and gained objectives South of ARRAS. French attack on CAMBRAI did not take place till next day. French attack from South never materialised.

    POLFORCE formed.
    Comd. - Major-General H.O. CURTIS (Comd. 46 Div.).
    Tps. - * Inf. of 46 Div. (less three bns.).
    One 25-pr. bty.
    R.E. dets.

    *Also included tsp on LA BASSEE Canal defences between AIRE and CARVIN.
    They were:-
    2/3 W. YORKS.
    25 Inf. Bde.
    One Bty. Fld. Regt. (making with 25-pr. bty. already under command complete 74 Fd. Regt.)
    101, 216, 228 Fd Coys.
    61, 62 Chemical Warfare Coys. R.E.

    The inf. of 46 Div. were to be detrained at ST. POL and were designed to be a stop in ST. POL against infiltration of German M.T. columns along roads from the West. Prior to this, these bns. had been used on an anti-sabotage and refugee control role East of the ESCAUT. In actual fact, at the time when POLFORCE was formed, it was not possible to detrain troops at ST. POL, and Major-General CURTIS, G.O.C. POLFOCE, took over defence of the AIR CANAL between MACFORCE on the LEFT and gradually extending to ST. OMER. Later the force included cavalry and other units, and was disposed with a block on each bridge.

    22nd May - 22/23rd May
    1, 2 and 3 CORPS withdrew from ESCAUT position to the frontier defences.

    44 Div. front taken over by Belgian Division (this was arranged for 23rd after withdrawal to frontier defences completed). About this time 1 and 2 Armd. Recce Bdes. were moved to West to operate with POLFORCE.

    23rd May
    2 and 48 Divs. relieved by the French; 44 Div. front taken over by Belgian Division; H.Q. 3 CORPS was also withdrawn. The object of these reliefs was to form reserves for a counterstroke to the South, in order to carry out higher authorities' plan to attempt to bridge the gap to the South.

    Frontier defences were held by 1 CORPS (1 and 42 Divs.) on RIGHT and 2 CORPS (3 and 4 Divs.) on LEFT.

    But situation deteriorated; German A.F.V.s had attack BETHUNE, and although they were repulsed there, they moved Eastwards, towards the crossings leading to CARVIN. As a result, 5 and 50 Divs. were withdrawn from SCARPE in evening, and ARRAS was abandoned; PETREFORCE then came to an end. From about this time, no landing grounds remained available in FRANCE, and contact with R.A.F. units was only by W.T. and telegraphy to ENGLAND.

    24th May
    Situation along AIRE CANAL was unsatisfactory; Germans held several small bridgeheads. Hence 2 and 44 Divs. were moved to form a defensive flank on the West, to take over from POLFORCE who would then only hold from CARVIN Eastwards.
    Actual dispositions were:-

    44 Div. - ST. OMER to AIRE.
    2 Div. - AIRE to BETHUNE (this Div. was subsequently reinforced by remains of 1 Army Tank Bde.).
    46 Div. - (i.e. POLFORCE and 25 Inf. Bde.) from BETHUNE to RACHES.

    5 and 50 Divs., under H.Q. 3 CORPS, were ear-marked for an attack Southwards between CAMBRAI and ARRAS. No one believed in the success of this attack or its feasibility; there were insufficient troops and ammunition available, although it was still thought by High Command that we might break through to the South. One Bde. 48 Div. was sent to BERGUES, and another Bde. 48 Div. was sent to CASSEL, the object being to secure these vital points in the event of a withdrawal to the coast becoming necessary.

    Arrangements were also made to move 23 Div. to the North West to occupy the CANAL line from the sea to ST. OMER. This movement had to be stopped, however, as the enemy were across the routes; one bn. was not stopped, and reached the coast at GRAVELINES. Next morning, in view of the changed situation, it was decided to move the Div. by March route to the coast.

    25th May
    Third Bde. 48 Div. with one M.G. bn. put in on Left on 2 CORPS behind Belgians on the Canal YPRES - COMINE. 12 L. ordered to YPRES to find out what was happening to the Belgians in this sector. Situation on the Belgian front deteriorated, and attack by two enemy Corps on YPRES - WYTCHAETE reported likely. As a result, the projected attack to the South by 5 and 50 Divs. was cancelled. 5 Div. ordered to take up position on YPRES - COMINES CANAL on Left of Bde. 48 Div. already there.
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    Withdrawal from ARRAS and Frontier Defences to the DUNKIRK - NIEUPORT perimeter.

    26th May
    All forces, POLFORCE, PETREFORCE, MACFORCE, finally ceased to exist on this date.

    East flank of B.E.F. perimeter held as follows from North to South:-
    5 Div., Bde. 48 Div., 2 CORPS, 1 CORPS

    Western flank held by Divs. as under from the South to the sea, under the command of 3 CORPS:-
    5 Div. Bde. 48 Div., 2 CORPS, 1 CORPS

    H.Q. 48 Div. at BERGUES, one Bde. at WORMHOUT - BERGUES, and one bde. at CASSEL and HAZEBROUCK (remaining bed. 48 Div. was on the Eastern Front).
    The object of these garrisons was to act as stops against infiltration across the canal. 50 Div. in G.H.Q. reserve South and West of LILLE.

    Later in the day, pressure against Western Front became severe. In the East, the Belgians were asked to come back to the YPRES Canal and agreed to do so after expostulation. It was now considered that it was essential to start the general withdrawal of the B.E.F. and two wait no longer for the French to break through from the South. Accordingly 50 Div. was moved up to YPRES North of 5 Div; WELSH GUARDS and HOPKINSON MISSION were sent to CASSEL.

    Night 26/27th May
    Main bodies 1 and 2 CORPS withdrew from frontier defences to div. reserve positions; rearguard maintained frontier defences.

    ADAMFORCE was formed to take command of all troops arriving in the DUNKIRK NIEUPORT perimeter, and to prepare for evacuation. Preliminary orders for evacuation were:-

    All surplus personnel to go straight to assembly areas allotted South of perimeter to each Corps.
    All transport, less certain items such as water carts and ambulances, to be dumped in these areas.

    War Office was asked for ships, and for rations, ammunition and water to be dumped on the beaches. From now the force was on half rations till arrival within the perimeter.

    27th May
    In the early morning information was received that the Belgians had asked for an armistice. Accordingly 3 Div. were ordered to protect Left flank North of 50 Div. who were in YPRES AREA. C.inC. received telegram from War Office agreeing to our withdrawal and saying that his primary role was to ensure the safety of the B.E.F.

    Night 27/28th May
    Main bodies withdrew behind River LYS. Rearguards withdrew to line DEULEMONT (H64) - LILLE thence DEULE CANAL to junction with LA BASSEE CANAL (H.52).

    28th May
    ADAMFORCE ordered Brigadier LAWSON to take over line of perimeter from BERGUES to NIEUPORT; he was unable, however, to seize the bridges in NIEUPORT.

    Night 28/29th
    Rearguard withdrew to River LYS and withdrawal of main bodies to perimeter started during the night. French 1st Army (General PRIOUX) refused to withdraw to perimeter except for DE LA LAURENCIE's Corps and the remnants of certain D.L.Ms.
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    Defence of Perimeter and Embarkation

    29th May
    Troops started arriving, and the perimeter line was held as follows:-

    2 CORPS East of Frontier.
    1 CORPS West of Frontier, joining with French at BERGUES.

    Plan for evacuation was to thin out all personnel unnecessary for actual defence of the perimeter during 29th, 30th, 31st May.

    During the night 29/30th May, C.-in-C. received instructions to come home himself as soon as the force had been reduced to three Divs; it was therefore decided to leave 1 CORPS (1, 42, 50 Divs.).

    1 CORPS was to continue evacuation at the same rate as the French, and if effective resistance became impossible, to capitulate to save unnecessary bloodshed.

    2 CORPS was, therefore, ordered to evacuate on night 31st May/1st June; it was considered impossible for 2 CORPS to hold the line against determined attack after this date.

    Command passed to 1 CORPS at 1800 hours 31st May, and Major-General ALEXANDER assumed command of 1 CORPS at this time. General ALEXANDER obtained permission from the War Office to withdraw his Corps on night 1st/2nd June.

    During 1st/2nd June, it was found impossible to embark all the troops and General ALEXANDER with some two or three thousand were finally embarked on the night 2nd/3rd June.

    Evacuation of the French Army was completed two or three days later.
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    1. Between 10th and 31st May, 1940, the B.E.F. was engaged in operations which ended in its embarkation at DUNKIRK.

    It involved the withdrawal of the force in face of the enemy and, finally, the abandonment of its guns, transport and other equipment.

    2. The reasons for its withdrawal can seldom have been apparent to troops or to junior commanders. They know that, whenever they met the enemy they were his masters; they may well have been perplexed and surprised when they were ordered to abandon positions which they had successfully defended.

    3. The following notes have therefore been prepared to explain the reasons which led the Commander-in-Chief to order the successive withdrawals of the B.E.F., and finally, the embarkation at DUNKIRK. They should be read in conjunction with the narrative of events which is attached.
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    4. The B.E.F. had been placed by the Government under the command of the French, and accordingly the Commander-in-Chief received his orders from the Commander of the French North Eastern front, General GEORGES.

    Plans of a highly secret nature had been prepared by General GEORGES for an advance into BELGIUM in the even of an appeal being made for military assistance. The B.E.F. had been allotted its role, and had prepared to carry it out.
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    5. On the 10th May, BELGIUM was invaded without warning by GERMANY, and appealed to GREAT BRITAIN and FRANCE for military aid. The same day, the British and French Armies marched into BELGIUM, and that evening foremost British troops reached the River DYLE on the line WAVRE - LOUVAIN, in accordance with prearranged plans. The line of the DYLE was then placed in a state of defence.

    So far, then, the B.E.F. had fulfilled its engagements, and, until further orders were given to withdraw, the line was held despite enemy attacks on the Right flank and at LOUVAIN.
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    6. Soon, however, it became evident that the main German thrust was being directed against the French 9th Army, on the MEUSE below NAMUR, twenty miles to the right of the B.E.F.

    This Operation was carried out with armoured forces, supported by troops carried in motor transport or mounted on motor cycles; and it was successful to an extent which not even the Germans appear to have expected. It is too early to determine the reasons why the enemy penetrated the French positions so rapidly, or why the French were unable to hold the enemy up on some position in rear.

    Be that as it may, by the 16th May, these enemy armoured forces had penetrated nearly forty miles, and had passed through the defences which prolong the MAGINOT LINE Northward along the Franco-Belgian frontier. Few French troops were at hand to stop them, and the 17th May the enemy were South of the FOREST of MORMAL.

    By the evening of 18th May, enemy tanks were approaching PERONNE and by 20th May they were in DOULLENS, and making for ABBEVILLE.
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    7. During this time, the nine divisions of the B.E.F. were engaged in their allotted task, the occupation of the position on the River DYLE; the threat to the Right flank and rear made it impossible for either the B.E.F., the French on their Right, or the Belgians on their Left to remain in what was rapidly becoming a dangerous salient.

    On the 16th May, therefore, a withdrawal was ordered behind BRUSSELS, to the line of the River SENNE, and on 17th May, a further withdrawal to the River ESCAUT. At the same time, the Right flank and to be strengthened and the defence of ARRAS organised. These dispositions were successful in gaining the necessary time for further defences to be organised on the Canal line from GRAVELINES to ST. OMER - BETHUNE - CARVIN, from such troops as were available. These were mostly battalions of Territorial divisions which had come to FRANCE for labour duties on the Lines of Communication, and artillery and engineer units which had not taken part in the advance to the DYLE. The defence of the Canal line, in its turn, gained time for the eventual withdrawal to DUNKIRK.

    But by now, several enemy armoured divisions had penetrated the gaps between CAMBRAI and PERONNE, and in quick succession, threatened AMIENS, ABBEVILLE, BOULOGNE and CALAIS, and severed the Line of Communication by road and rail across the SOMME, which linked the B.E.F. to its bases.
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    8. There might still have been time to close the gap, and General WEYGAND, then in supreme command of the French Forces, prepared a plan by which an attack was to be made simultaneously Northwards from the SOMME and Southwards from DOUAI.

    Whether or not sufficient French troops were ever available for the Northward attack cannot with certainty be said; in the North, two divisions were made available by the B.E.F. while the French 1st Army provided in the first instance two light mechanised divisions. Time was vital, and this force attacked on 21st May, but the French Corps on the Left which it was hoped would co-operate did not attack till two days later, nor did any French attack appear from the South.

    9. One further attempt was to have been made from the North on the 26th May, again with two British divisions and a French Corps, to join hands with a Southward attack. On the evening of the 24th the Belgian line on the LYS was penetrated; thus the B.E.F. was in urgent danger of being cut off from the sea as it had already been cut off from its bases, through the penetration by the enemy of allied positions on its flanks.
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    10. There remained, therefore, no choice for the Commander-in-Chief but to order the further withdrawal which ended in the embarkation at DUNKIRK. The plan for this withdrawal was approved by H.M. Government before it was put into action.

    The B.E.F. could have continued to beat off enemy attacks on its own front, but could not prevent penetration on fronts which were held by other troops. Thus, in a short time, the force would have become exhausted and surrender would have become inevitable.

    The withdrawal to DUNKIRK, when it was decided on by the Commander-in-Chief, provided the only alternative to such a futile manoeuvre.
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    11. Thus, the retirement was carried out for strategical, but in no way for tactical reasons. Indeed the tactical situation was very different.

    On the Belgian front, particularly on the DENDRE and ESCAUT positions, divisions were holding far longer frontages than had been forecast in pre-war training; yet there were very few instances in which the enemy succeeded in taking possession of any of our defended localities. In nearly every case the lost ground was regained; in some instances with the bayonet.

    Our Anti-Tank weapons proved their value: over and over again.

    On the Western front between ST. OMER and CARVIN, a distance of over 40 miles was held by a force which at times cannot have exceeded 10,000 men and never exceeded three weak divisions. Penetration was inevitable, and some of the troops which held on in their defended localities till the last found themselves surrounded and overwhelmed. In many instances, garrisons such as those at BERGUES, WORMHOUT and CASSEL, held their ground against repeated attacks, and gained the requisite time for the Force to withdraw, after which they were themselves called in.

    Two battalions of 50th DIVISION counter-attacked successfully at CARVIN when a French Colonial Division gave way before an enemy attack.

    In many instances, units of other arms had to be used as infantry in defence, medium and heavy artillery, searchlights, engineers, survey units, R.A.S.C., and, in one case (at ST. POL) a mobile bath unit prepared and successfully defended their positions. Such examples could be multiplied many times over.

    The troops are not mistaken; they are indeed more than a match for the Germans, and this will be proven as often as the two armies meet in battle.
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    May 12th

    1 Army Tk. Bde. less 7 & 8 R. TANKS in PACY Area;
    7 R. TANKS in DOMART Area.

    Orders received for Bde., less tanks, to move up to ORCHIES Area where move forward to BRUSSELS would be under orders of 48 DIVISION.

    Tanks of 4 R. TANKS to entrain in BRUEIL on night 13/14th. These left morning 14th for BRUSSELS Area.

    Tanks of 7 R. TANKS to entrain in DOMART. These left on 14th May for BRUSSELS Area.

    1 Ay. TANK BRIGADE Road Party left PACY area during afternoon of 12th and reached for are BEAUVAIS that evening.

    (Note in future, for brevity, 1 Ay. TANK BRIGADE, less 8 R. TANKS, will be called Bde.)

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