1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish, The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment). 1940

Discussion in '1940' started by Drew5233, Jan 15, 2011.

  1. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    I've just been reading about the battalion action at Ficheux on the 20th May 1940 in Tim Lynch's great book on labour units - Dunkirk 1940 Whereabouts Unknown.

    I've noticed the Bn war diary only covers April - I'm assuming May's entries was destroyed or lost - Does anyone know of anymore sources as to what happened during the battle?

    Without reading all the citations as yet it appears the battalion won/awarded 4 Military Crosses, 1 Distinguished Conduct Medal, 4 Military Medals and twenty Mention in Despataches. Assuming a large portion of those MiD's were posthumous the medal count would have been much higher if it wasn't for the rule that you had to be alive when being recommended for medals apart from the VC and GC.

    Its thought only 80 men from the battalion survived or avoided capture and those that surrendered, only did so after being wounded during the five hours of fighting !

    It sound like a right scrap to me that deserves further attention.

  2. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

  3. Verrieres

    Verrieres no longer a member

    Hi Drew,
    Bearing in mind this was the old 12th DLI you could try the war diaries of the 10th and 11th DLI who were with them at this time? Quick look 10 DLI May is covered but havent looked in any great detail.

  4. Steve Mac

    Steve Mac Very Senior Member

    Hello Andy,

    I put this on a separate thread on the 8th January:

    "...brief history of 1TS up to just after the Dunkirk evacuation is:

    1) It was formed in June 1939 as 12DLI;
    2) 12DLI was 9DLI’s duplicate battalion (or 2nd line), ribaldry referred to as the ‘Gestetner Gurkhas’ (the 9DLI were known as the ‘Gateshead Gurkhas’);
    3) 12DLI’s title was quickly changed to 1TS and became part of the Black Watch;
    4) 1TS served with 10 and 11DLI, in the 70th Infantry Brigade, 23rd (Northumbrian) Division in France in 1940, mainly as a labour battalion but also guarding airfields, etc;
    5) Only partly trained, not expected to fight and consequently poorly equipped, 1TS were caught in the open near Ficheux on the 20 May 1940 and shot up. Fighting German tanks with rifle and bayonet, it suffered grievous losses and virtually ceased to exist;
    6) After its return to the UK, what was left of the 23rd (Northumbrian) Division was broken up; in late June 1940.
    7) The 70th Infantry Brigade, including 1TS, was transferred to the 49th (West Riding) Division; with whom it returned to France on 12 June 1944 and remained fighting until broken up to provide replacements for 50Div in September 1944.”

    The best source I have is this link – pages 76 to 81:

    HyperWar: The War in France and Flanders 1939–1940 [Chapter V]

    I am also aware of the following book, but don’t know if it will have the information you are after:

    Officers 1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish. Harder than Hammers [History 1TS 1939-45].

    And I found this on the BBC wartime memories site, but removed the information regarding Alan Forster’s time as a POW. There are extracts from a couple of books quoted therein:

    The Diary of Alan Forster, POW 3921, Stalag VIIIB (October 1944 - May 1945) Part 2.
    by Bill Forster
    You are browsing in:

    Archive List > Diaries > The Diary of Alan Forster, POW 3921, Stalag VIIIB (October 1944 - May 1945)
    Contributed by
    Bill Forster
    Article ID:
    Contributed on:
    24 November 2005

    Continued from A7257099


    Alan Forster (4459370 Pte. A. Forster) enlisted in the 1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish, a newly reconstituted territorial Battalion of the Black Watch, on the 17 January 1940. The recruits were Tynesiders, not necessarily of Scottish descent.

    The Battalion left its HQ in Gateshead for Southampton on the 23 April 1940 and embarked for Le Havre with so little notice that one soldier was in the cinema with his girl friend when the film was interrupted with an announcement that his unit was to go to the docks. He had to change out of civvies and into his uniform whilst crossing the channel. On landing they went by train to Beauvoir, an aerodrome 7 km from Frevent, where they spent two quiet weeks living under canvass in orchards heavy with blossom.

    The Battalion consisted of 660 men organised into a HQ Company and four rifle companies (Companies "A", "B", "C" and "D"). Alan was in the 13th Platoon, "C" Company. On the 17 May they were sent to defend a ten mile length of the Canal du Nord but plans changed constantly and on the 19th they were withdrawn to Hendrecourt where they occupied the grounds of a small chateau. Later that day they were ordered to march to Saultry but due to their evident exhaustion were told to rest for the night at Neuville. They arrived there at 3 am on the 20 May but at 6.50 refugees’ reports of tanks approaching on both flanks forced them to resume marching with “C” company being left to cover the retreat.


    The Tyneside Scottish fought its first and last engagement in this campaign to defend the retreating BEF when they were overrun by the rapidly advancing German forces between Neuville Vitasse and the village of Ficheux on the road to Saultry.

    A brief description is given in “The Black Watch and the Kings Enemies” by Brian Fergusson (London: Collins, 1950):

    “The companies of the Battalion, under-armed and ill-equipped, continued to fight individual company actions until they had exhausted what little ammunition had been given them for their original role. The provost serjeant was killed as he clambered on to a tank and thrust his rifle through an embrasure. A section of the youngest soldiers, with less than eight weeks' service, was seen to fix bayonets as an enemy tank approached them. Two old-soldier G.S.M.s were both killed behind anti-tank rifles whose crews had already been knocked out”

    A more detailed account of the engagement in which these young untested and lightly armed territorials and a few old soldiers held up the advance of a German Panzer division for five valuable hours is given in the Battalion history, published privately in 1947 (no publisher or author given), which I consulted in the Library of the Imperial War Museum, London...
    [The First Battalion Tyneside Scottish, The Black Watch — Royal Highland Regiment, 1947].

    This described how Alan’s Company confronted the enemy in Neuville Vitesse whilst covering the retreat of the other companies:

    “At 08.25, immediately after the withdrawal of "D" Company, "C" Company (Capt. G. D. Harker) in Neuville Vitasse Village was attacked by enemy A.F.V.s from both flanks. In half an hour's fighting, some of which took place in houses that were soon ablaze, a determined but costly resistance was made against the enemy, but at length, with the line of withdrawal cut to the rear and to both flanks, and with all ammunition expended, the survivors were compelled to surrender. Captain Harker and a small party escaped, and remained at large for three days.”

    Alan told me they were marched out of the village to hold up the German advance. They rounded a bend and came face to face with the German tanks. Alan, holding one end of an anti-tank gun, dived into the ditch but the soldier on the other end of the gun was killed. Within minutes they were all on their feet, hands in the air, prisoners of war.

    The Tyneside Scottish were almost completely wiped out in this engagement.


  5. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    Cheers Jim,

    As you know I already have all the DLI War diaries. ;)

    Cheers Steve,

    Bit too much info on there though for me though, just the link would have done - Ideally I was just looking for sources on that battle as in to buy in book format or read on the net plus any sketch maps for a proper visit at some point which I know exsist.

  6. Steve Mac

    Steve Mac Very Senior Member

    Hello Andy,

    How does the saying go? You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time!

    Hope you find what you are looking for in the quoted books/web link...

    I would be interested in seeing a really good detailed account of the1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish with the BEF in 1940. Do you intend to post something on this thread? If not, could you please let me know about any good sources you find!?!


  7. Steve Mac

    Steve Mac Very Senior Member

  8. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    1944 ? o_O sacre bleu. Four years too late for me mate. My war interest is finished by August 1940. :D
  9. elyncho

    elyncho Member

    Hi guys

    Thanks to Andy for bigging up my book (Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown available at Amazon and all good bookshops :D )!!!!

    It covers the three untrained 'digging divisions' (12th, 23rd and 46th) sent to do labouring work behind the BEF lines in 1940. The Tyneside Scottish were part of 23rd Division and were engaged in building airfields near the Belgian border.

    I was lucky enough to make contact with the son of a survivor of 1 TS (Jim Laidler) and to get a copy of his diary of captivity. It only gives part of the story but gives a fascinating account of the next four years as a POW and the horrors of the death march in 1945.

    The book 'Harder than Hammers' is worth the read. I got mine on disc from the British Library and it worked out cheaper than buying an old copy.

    The war diaries were lost but there is a hand written version by CSM Baggs at the Imperial War Museum (Doc 94/49/1) which gives a detailed account of what happened along with some maps and award recommendations.

    1TS had been part of the labour force sent over to work behind the lines. Jim Laidler had lied about his age and had only been in the army a matter of weeks when he was sent out there. When the Germans attacked, the labour troops were all that were available to stop them. 1TS were sent to hold the canal line south of Arras but it was clear it could not be held and they were in the process of moving back to consolidate the line and to link up with other labour troops to their south. On 20 May they were about to pull back to Ficheux.

    At the risk of losing royalties, the following account appears in 'Whereabouts Unknown':
    At just after 0900hrs, Colonel Swinburne ordered Second Lieutenant Stordy to take two sections by truck to secure the right flank at the junction of the road to Ficheux. Taking a Bren and a Boys rifle, Stordy set out in the lead truck and took up position around the home of the Cagin family on the junction of the Bucquoy and Ficheux roads. At the same time, Lieutenant MacGregor was tasked with a reconnaissance towards Saulty and there he made contact with the left company of the Buffs.
    With everything apparently going to plan, Swinburne then set out in an 8cwt truck, escorted by Second Lieutenant Cohen and three men, to establish contact with brigade HQ, just three kilometres away at Barly. Behind him, seven trucks carrying HQ company and the AMPC and RAOC men followed along the road towards Ficheux. About 0915hrs, as the trucks drew near the Darras farm, machine guns of the 3rd Company, 8th Motorised Battalion of 8th Panzer Division opened up from their ambush.
    Private Ross, in one of the trucks behind Swinburne, recalled ‘we’d only travelled a short distance when we came under heavy machine gun fire. Our driver was killed and the lorry left the road after it had just passed in front of a farm, where there was a stable. One of our vehicles was on fire. Another with the water tank headed towards the fields. The enemy fire was coming from the South West... QSM Swordy, our oldest NCO, set up some defensive positions [but] we only had rifles and a single anti-tank weapon. As we had some casualties leaving the lorry, I received the order to set up a first aid post. I went behind the stable when all of a sudden, a fire broke out. There were a number of pigs with their skin on fire who were running in all directions. I then decided to take the wounded to the other side of the road towards a cattle trough. Piper Eadie and myself improvised a stretcher and carried those who couldn’t walk to this new position‘.
    Nearby, Private Malcolm Armstrong had also been in the convoy: ‘In my vehicle [thirty-nine year old Private Arthur] Todhunter had been shot in the head. I was at the rear of the vehicle crouching down and shouting to him to get out which he couldn’t do as he was already dead. There was panic everywhere. I went round to the left and saw a small tank approaching. We were given the order to fix bayonets to attack. Surprised, I noticed that the cannon turned towards me but I escaped death when he changed direction, fired and one of the other lads fell. With Private Albert Foster, who was killed later, we advanced along the side of the Pronier Farm. I was going to go in when a bullet or something similar struck my rifle and I dropped it. As I bent down to pick it up I was again saved when something just missed me. I then ran to an area behind this building and saw a dozen of my comrades mown down by machine gun fire. I quickly lay down behind them and was wounded by mortar fire. I put on a field dressing and, as there were Germans everywhere, I surrendered.’
    The opening fusillade had hit the windscreen and engine of Swinburne’s vehicle and set in on fire. Cut off from his battalion, he began making his way forward in the hope of reaching brigade HQ but found himself surrounded. He was eventually captured two nights later in the village of Avesnes-les-Comtes. Two men of the 11 DLI he had found during his escape having been killed by fire from a French armoured column on the 21st.
    Behind him, his battalion was in chaos. German infantry, tanks and armoured cars were closing in from all sides. In open ground, without cover or heavy weapons, the Tyneside Scottish stood little chance. The battle quickly deteriorated into a series of individual engagements. Company Sergeant Major Baggs later recalled that within minutes he had fourteen killed and six wounded as he and his men were caught in the open by enfilade fire. After struggling into the scant cover of the railway embankment, the Germans were able to bring up two tanks and blasted them out of their position. With no other option, Baggs surrendered.
    Elsewhere, the Tynesiders were determined to go down fighting. At the Pronier Farm, Provost Sergeant Dick Chambers was seen to charge an enemy tank and was killed as he tried to fire through the slits in the turret. Company Sergeant Major Newton calmly strolled around his men’s positions describing how ‘interesting’ the situation had become and how he had been wounded in this same area in the first war. Company Sergeant Majors Morris and Parmenter both took over Boys rifles whose crews had been killed and kept up what fire they could until they, too, were overrun. Lance Corporal Laidler carried with him regimental bagpipes that had been used in action at La Boiselle on 1st July 1916 when the pipers had led the attack, only to be gunned down. Now, Laidler played again. A junior NCO, only recently promoted, was heard giving textbook fire direction commands for targets just yards away - completely unnecessary but with a great effect of maintaining discipline whilst two new recruits, wounded manning a roadblock refused to accept treatment and remained at their posts until overrun.
    As fighting continued through the morning, exhausted men were seen to fall asleep even under fire. It was a one-sided battle, all the more so when a number of the Lewis guns that had been hurriedly issued on the Canal du Nord were found to be marked ‘DP’ - for drill purposes only and incapable of firing a shot. Despite these handicaps, though, Private James Laidler and his comrades of Recruit Company were determined to prove themselves. In a day of doomed courage, theirs was a story that epitomised the plight facing the digging divisions. ‘Their ammunition expended’, the Tynesider’s’ history records, ‘a section of recruits with under eight weeks’ training calmly obeyed the order to fix bayonets and meet the attack of an enemy AFV that was approaching them - a futile but heroic gesture. Surrender never occurred to them’. In all, four Military Crosses, one Distinguished Conduct Medal, four Military Medals and twenty Mentions in Despatches were won but they came at a high price - reports vary, but estimates suggest that no more than eighty men escaped death or capture and that most of those captured surrendered only after being wounded.
    Nearby, 11DLI had also been hit badly by both Rommel‘s 7th Panzer Division and the SS Totenkopf and had almost entirely been killed or captured. A wounded sergeant managed to reach 10th battalion in Lattre to warn them and report that the 11th were now heading towards Hauteville. Colonel Marley of the 10th set out to make contact but, by sheer chance, was held up by a flock of sheep long enough for a message from HQ to reach him - Hauteville was in German hands. There was nothing Marley could do but try to gather together as many stragglers and survivors as he could. By the time night fell, of two battalions, ‘C’ Company of the 10th and the 140 AMPC men, just 233 all ranks had been accounted for.

    Just as an aside, the track 'Piper to the End' on the Get Lucky album by Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) was released as a single to support the poppy appeal and was about his uncle, the Piper Laidler mentioned above. He was killed and the pipes were never recovered. Piper Laidler does not seem to have been a relative of Jim Laidler though.

    Stewart Coupar likes this.
  10. kingarthur

    kingarthur Well-Known Member

  11. John Lawson

    John Lawson Arte et Marte

    Excellent book
  12. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

  13. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

  14. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

  15. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

  16. LondonNik

    LondonNik Senior Member

    Last edited: Sep 16, 2017
  17. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Andy - how is your French? I ask because Andre Coilliot, the French Historian from the Arras area, has a great interest in this engagement and has a lot of research done after the battle, including civilian accounts and records of where bodies were located following the action. His accounts can be found in 'Mai 1940, un mois pas comme les autres' and the updated version: 'Sombres Jours de Mai 1940' My French is not great but I get the gist of his account and it is very well researched.
    And he is a nice guy!


    Thanks for that link Nick. I think that I might have to order a copy. Is there anything in the first book that doesn't appear in the second edition ?
  18. LondonNik

    LondonNik Senior Member

    Last edited: Sep 16, 2017
  19. piccadilly

    piccadilly Junior Member


    Incidentally, Lance/Cpl Laidler, the Piper to the Last, was Mark Knopfler's (Dire Straits) uncle, his mother's brother.

    Just thought worth to share.
    Stewart Coupar likes this.
  20. John Lawson

    John Lawson Arte et Marte

    No wonder he wrote, "Brothers in Arms"

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