Report: Bartholomew Committee, lessons to be learnt from operations in Flanders

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    Notes of a Committee set up to consider the lessons to be learnt from the Operations in FLANDERS.

    Wednesday, 18th June, 1940.


    General BARTHOLOMEW (Chairman)
    Brigadier HOLDEN
    General IRWIN
    General MALDEN
    Brigadier WATSON
    Colonel GURNEY (Secretary)


    Brigadier Sir Oliver W.H. LEESE
    Lieutenant-Colonel The Viscount BRIDGEMAN
    Major KIMMINS

    Note taken by Treasury Reporter.

    please note there are a further 20 pages of Q & As to be transcribed.
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    CHAIRMAN: Now, gentlemen, I think we will begin.

    A. (BRIGADIER LEESE): Shall I start first of all with the general detail of the whole campaign?

    Q. May I just say what we are doing. Our terms of reference are to find out the lessons of the recent operations in FLANDERS and see how they can be applied usefully to our present organisation and training. I may say with certain limitations we are not here to upset the whole organisation of the army, but to go as far as we can having regard to the weapons available and the time factor, and possibly dividing our report into two or three parts, what we can do at once, what we can do a little later and what we can do a long time later and we are going to ask you this morning to give us, because I feel it is very essential an outline of the operations in BELGIUM and FLANDERS and then to go on to Staff duties, questions such as the sizes of Staffs, distribution of work, methods of issue of orders, signals and inter-communication work and liaison with the B.E.F., air support, effects upon Headquarters and Communications and one or two other things, but that has no rigid definition of what we want to do. Certain other things may come out of it and we may ask you certain questions. The first essential is to give us as concise a picture as you can of the progress of operations. I have asked members of the Committee, if I do not ask the questions they want answered, to put them themselves.

    A. May I make it clear first of all we have practically no war diaries at the moment from which we can annotate the information. I think that situation possibly may improve, but at the present time as far as we can make out the majority were either lost at DUNKIRK or destroyed in the sea coming back.

    From the political point of view dealing with the French Higher Command we have had a very valuable private diary of the C.G.S. which has practically been our only guide to the actual dates on which various incidents have occurred. I have brought with me today Lieutenant-Colonel BRIDGEMAN and Major KIMMINS so that at any time you may want to stop me as I go on, if I cannot answer your questions they may be able to do so. Lieutenant-Colonel BRIDGEMAN was in FRANCE during the whole period previous to the war, I only joined G.H.Q. when the war finally broke out.

    Now we have divided the campaign into four sections.
    First of all, the advance to the DYLE, the defence of the DYLE, the defence of the ESCAUT position
    and then the withdrawal back to the Frontier defences and the defence of ARRAS,
    thirdly, the withdrawal from ARRAS to the Frontier defences in DUNKIRK
    and fourthly, the final evacuation.
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    Starting with the first phase from the 10th to the 15th May, a phase which I will not go into in any particular detail, with the FIRST CORPS on the Right, the 1st, 2nd and 48th DIVISIONS, the SECOND CORPS on the Left, the 3rd and 4th DIVISIONS, they proceeded by mechanical transport to the River DYLE. The advance was extraordinarily well carried out. The traffic discipline worked extraordinarily well. There was no heavy hostile attack on our columns whatsoever and the whole operation as far as the DYLE was carried out, according to plan. One of the Divisions timing was late, but taken as a whole, the operation went accruing to plan. The 12th LANCERS and Divisional Cavalry Regiment operated in front of the advance and gained contact with the enemy. We were in touch with the First French Army on our Right and with the Belgian Army on our Left. The Army Tank Brigade was railed up to the FORET DE SOIGNIES and that operation was extremely successful. They were not spotted. They got into the woods. There was no question of their being bombed and the train flats which took them up were not hindered by the enemy at all during the advance. The 12th LANCERS remained in contact with the enemy for several days and no heavy armoured fighting vehicle attack developed on the front of the B.E.F. Considerable attack developed against the French on our immediate Right and as you know, further South a very heavy German attack developed through the ARDENNES against the French ?th Army. Further down on our right information about hat began to trickle into G.H.Q. within 48 hours of our arriving at the DYLE position. The 5th DIVISION began to move forward from the main ESCAUT Area and was picked up by mechanical transport and moved forward to the DENDRE position in accordance with the original plan. Almost immediately after the arrival at the DENDRE owing to enemy threats towards our Right flank the 5th DIVISION was moved right up to the BRUSSELS area in support of the FIRST CORPS and the 50th DIVISION at that time took over the whole of the bridgeheads along the whole of the DENDRE and started to prepare those for demolition.

    Q. What had you in front?

    A. The FIRST and SECOND CORPS and the 48th DIVISION slightly drawn back on our Right.

    Q. Behind the SECOND and FIRST DIVISIONS?

    A. The THIRD and FOURTH DIVISIONS and the SECOND CORPS on the Left, the 5th DIVISION moving up in accordance plan to the DENDRE the idea being to have the 4th and 5th DIVISIONS moved up South-West to BRUSSELS, the 50th DIVISION took over the whole of the crossings of the DENDRE. In the meantime the THIRD CORPS with the 44th DIVISION to the North and the 42nd DIVISION in the South started to move into the line to take up a position along the ESCAUT.

    Now during this period - in order to get the picture of the three DIVISIONS, to get them into the picture at the right time - during the first three days on the ESCAUT there were considerable numbers of rumours of parachutists being dropped on empty aerodromes in the SOMME area and the 12th DIVISION was ordered in conjunction with several army construction companies to ensure that all these aerodromes were guarded, mobile reserves were available and there was no question of parachutists being dropped into the neighbourhood of these empty aerodromes and troop carrying aircraft landing on the aerodromes in our rear and in our base area. The 23rd and 46th DIVISIONS of Infantry and ROYAL ENGINEERS only, infantry at a very low scale and not armed with many, if any, anti-tank rifles, moved up, the 46th DIVISION coming up to take over road traffic control posts and anti-sabotage duties between the ESCAUT and the DENDRE thus relieving all the fighting troops of the FIRST and SECOND CORPS. The 23rd DIVISION I will deal with later. They did not come further than ARRAS.

    At that time, one important point was that it had been expected that the Belgians would hang on for approximately 72 hours in front so as to give a delay of about 72 hours during which time ourselves and the French could get into position on the general DYLE position. In point of fact, the Belgians only did hold for some 24 to 36 hours. MAASTRICHT went on the first day and directly the bridge at MAASTRICHT went, the enemy started to pour across it, not threatening our front so much as the French Right coming in from TIRLEMONT and TIENDRE. There was also great difficulty in regard to the ….., [sic] the tank obstacle which had not been placed by the Belgians in the position we understood it to be placed, and also it was not completed but that was satisfactorily arranged between ourselves and the French to the Right and the Belgians on our Left, and we never actually pushed forward our infantry to the obstacle in front of our position at all. We merely had divisional cavalry forward to the line.

    Q. The obstacle was not under fire?

    A. No, Sir, except by divisional cavalry units and it was in no way complete and that had a great deal to do with the breaking of the French D.L.Ms on our Right. They never had a continuous obstacle to fight on.
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    A. [continued] At this moment the air factor - I propose if you agree to go into it very slightly with you because the whole thing is being gone into by another Committee which M.O.7 is running, the results of which are going to come up in front of you I think and also i know that Air Marshal BLUNT is doing the same thing; he is coming to give evidence in front of you and there is also a Committee on the same subject sitting under him.

    During the first two days of the war the fighters immediately under the Air Component, four squadrons, were virtually finished and within 48 hours of the outbreak of hostilities we had continuous appeals coming through all the time from the Belgians on our Left and from the French on our Right and within 48 hours we were on the telephone several times a day trying to get further fighters out from home. This was gradually done. As the fighters came out from home so owing to the serious situation of the French on our Right, reinforcements that came out were used much more freely on their front than on our front. As a result there is little doubt from the reports that came into G.H.Q. during the first three days or so anyhow, that on the the front of the B.E.F. the enemy low dive bombers were able to operate on the battlefield with extremely little, if any, interference.

    The air co-operation situation on the front of the B.E.F. from the point of view of medium reconnaissance which was done by G.H.Q. was extraordinarily unsatisfactory. Brigadier HOLDEN will be able to tell you more from the point of view of medium reconnaissance of the squadrons allotted to Corps, but from the point of view of the Squadrons allotted to G.H.Q. within 48 hours of operations starting it was almost impossible to put up any machine to get the information that you wanted unless it was protected by at least a squadron of fighter aircraft and the squadrons of fighter aircraft were seldom available. If you wanted to put up reconnaissance over important places such as MAASTRICHT to see the situation on the bridge there, all over these towns, TIRLEMONT or TIENDRE where the enemy were moving into their concentration points for their further attacks on the French, one found within a few hours of the Germans getting into these places the anti-aircraft defence was so strong you could not put an army reconnaissance machine over. There were very bad casualties among our squadrons there. There was the question of the BLENHEIM squadron which cropped up at the time. If you wanted to keep your BLENHEIMS which should have been kept to carry out your reconnaissance it meant there was no aircraft of the Air Component suitable for day bombing.
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    A. [continued]

    Now by the 16th May the extent of the German breakthrough on the MEUSE was definitely realised and we heard rumours that the enemy had broken through as far as the River OISE, therefore a withdrawal was ordered and was agreed to by the French and with the Belgians. It started first with a slight swingback of the FIRST CORPS down the LA LACHE River leaving the remainder of the FIRST CORPS in the same position and the SECOND CORPS in the LOUVAIN bridgehead in touch with the Belgians on the Left who up to that time had no been seriously attacked.

    During the night of the 16th/17th the two Corps moved back to the SENNE. There was a slight operation on the Right of the FIRST CORPS just previous to that withdrawal, German cyclists and armoured cars trying to get in between the FIRST CORPS between the FORET DE SOIGNIES and HAL. Part of the 48th DIVISION were moved up in support and the situation did not materialise into anything serious.

    The withdrawal of the FIRST and SECOND CORPS from the SENNE to the DENDRE went on during the night 17th/18th. At that moment came the first alarm in regard to the danger to our Southern flank. The First French Army on our Right had had their flank turned and the first decision was to form a force which we called MAC FORCE commanded by General MASON MacFARLANE and we put them East on the line to DOUAIS from CARVIN to NAULDE in order to cover our Southern flank. I want to make it absolutely clear at this stage the formation of these various forces was because there were no other troops available to do it. We had to complete that, to break organisation and to produced these ad hoc forces. The whole of the rest of our fighting formations were at that time actually in the line in contact with the enemy in process of withdrawal.

    Now this first force of General MASON MacFARLANE's, MAC FORCE, consisted of a brigade of the 42nd DIVISION, I think the 127th INFANTRY BRIGADE, there was ROYAL HORSE ARTILLERY with them and a field company. I cannot be definite about the amount of artillery, at the moment I have no records of any of this force. The amount of artillery in any of these forces was entirely dictated by the crossings any particular force had to protect. The object from the start was to put any weapon we could against the enemy armoured vehicles on each bridge, to support that weapon with such infantry as was necessary to protect it and to provide a sufficient number of ROYAL ENGINEERS to prepare the crossings for demolition and to attempt to have a reserve of infantry for patrolling at night between the bridges, and later to provide a certain degree of mechanised mobile reserve by the employment of our light tank cavalry regiments. Into this force the first Army Tank Brigade was put for the moment. It was put in partially as a form of mobile reserve for this force mainly because actually it was in the area and it was moved back to the area immediately in the rear of MAC FORCE, for it either to be used with MAC FORCE; it was left under their command definitely for administration and protection because it had been moved rom the …. [sic] area back to the FORET DE SOIGNIES. When you take evidence from the Tank Brigade in regard to the 'I' tanks I think this march is one of the most important points in the evidence.

    Q. Where did they come from?

    A. From the FORET DE SOIGNIES and it is a considerable march. I cannot tell how far without measuring it. It was a long trek that they had to do. The whole organisation for getting the flats back broke down. The French drivers of the trains went absent. Our own drivers sent up, some were connected with trains, some were unable to be connected with trains. In some instances when they were connected with trains, steam was not up. Other trains went back. Railway lines in certain cases were destroyed and the result was anyhow that none of the tanks were taken back by train from the FORET DE SOIGNIES to the LILLE area. POPE will be able to give you details of that, but we started to suffer from mechanical breakdowns almost from the start of that march. That was in no way the fault of the ROYAL TANK CORPS. It was purl adverse circumstances demanding tanks to do a great deal more than they were mechanically ever intended to do.

    BRIGADIER HOLDEN: They actually did more than the 75 miles back because they were on their way back from HAL and the order went out that night when we heard the enemy forces had broken through towards HAL and they actually did a counter march back to HAL and I think they must have done 110 to 115 miles.

    GENERAL MELDEN: I think it was said they did 105 miles.
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    A. (BRIGADIER LEESE): Now we will go to the situation in front of ARRAS. It now becomes increasingly clear that this gap on our Right was extremely serious and that the enemy were striking towards ABBEVILLE and they might either turn and go across the SOMME or they might move in the Northerly direction towards the Channel Ports. About this moment it began to become obvious to G.H.Q. that although the gap was a French responsibility if anything was going to be done to be done to stop it at all in view of the complete demoralisation of the First French Army, we should have to do it ourselves so a force was formed in ARRAS, PETRE FORCE, about which Lieutenant-Colonel BRIDGEMAN can give you the greatest detail because he actually formed that force with the object partially of defending ARRAS because it had a great deal of our G.H.Q. organisation still in it. The whole of the main G.H.Q. was there. Also to start and form blocks on the main arteries of communications along which these armoured tanks were trying to force themselves because there is no doubt in the initial stages these armoured columns moved straight along main roads and we came to the conclusion if we could block a certain number of the main points where these large roads collected in some of these larger towns like ARRAS and ST. POL, we should have a considerable delaying effect on the advance of the enemy's mechanised columns, so a force called the PETRE FORCE was formed in ARRAS under the command of General PETRE who had come up ahead of his Division, the 12th DIVISION.

    A. (LIEUTENANT-COLONEL BRIDGEMAN): The PETRE FORCE was formed on the 17th May as a result of the information and the lack of information which we were getting from the French on our Right. The 17th May began so far as this operation is concerned by us, that is to say, the rear Headquarters, rear G.H.Q. sat ARRAS, receiving an order from General GEORGES transmitted through [blank] DIVISION for the 23rd DIVISION which is one of the Labour Divisions, to occupy a line from RUYALCOURT along the CANAL DU NORD to ARLEUX. Enquiries made during the rest of the day established to our satisfaction that there was a complete gap on the front of the First French Army in the area of ST. QUENTIN and that the Germans could cross the River OISE. During the day it became quite evident despot the Operation Orders issued by the French First Army and G.Q.G. there were no French troops available to stop that gap nor would there be for at least 24 hours, probably more like 48 hours. It therefore became necessary in view of the fact particularly that the tanks were reported as using the main roads and at that time the main roads only, it became necessary to organise a series of strong points, viz. the nodal points on the roads which in that part of FRANCE were very clearly marked. There was one order divided into two parts, first of all to prolong the Right flank of the B.E.F. which in the first instance was secured by placing ARRAS in a state of defence, secondly, with the object of slowing down, if possible arresting, the enemy penetration due West which was having the result of severing the Line of Communication from the fighting troops. To do that no properly trained troops were available except for one battalion of the WELSH GUARDS which were in ARRAS and we had to rely in the first instance on the 23rd DIVISION with such parts of the 12th DIVISION, about half the 12th DIVISION, as had at that time succeeded in detraining. The railway situation was becoming more acute from hour to hour, certain chemical companies and construction companies and troops of the ROYAL ENGINEERS and a garrison battalion of the WEST YORKSHIRE REGIMENT.

    [Please note that part of the right-hand margin is torn; gaps or illegible words in the next paragraph are denoted by a ?]

    The first step was to comply with whatever misgivings we might have with the order to place the 23rd DIVISION on the line RUYALCOURT to ARLEUX … [sic]. The second business as we saw it at G.H.Q. - we were in telephonic communication with the Command Post, ? they knew and approved what we were doing - the second step was to place ARRAS in a state of defence. That was done by placing Colonel GRIFFITHS commanding 1st Battalion WELSH GUARDS as Commander ?of the British Troops commanding ARRAS. He had with him a garrison battalion, the 9th WEST SUSSEX, certain chemical companies and construction companies of ROYAL ENGINEERS of which I have not complete details because we never knew who was in and who was not, and a composite unit of eight or nine tanks formed out of the Headquarters squadron of the First Army Reconnaissance Brigade which happened to be nearby., the tanks being made up by raiding the advance ordnance depot.

    CHAIRMAN: Where did this order come from? Did GORT [?guess] issue this order from his Headquarters?

    A. No, Sir.

    Q. It was entirely your own or somebody's initiative ?

    A. (BRIGADIER LEESE): They started on their own. Our headquarters ? … us know they were doing it.

    Q. And GORT was still at SECLIN?

    A. Yes, ? … moment when they started we were at RENNE.

    A. (LIEUTENANT-COLONEL ?BRIDGEMAN) What actually happened was we made the plan down in rear ? …. I spoke on the telephone to General EASTWOOD who was at that time at forward Headquarters and gave him an outline of the plan which we had in mind to adopt and asked whether or not it was approved. That is how it actually worked. At that time the Adjutant-General who was the senior officer in rear Headquarters, he was not in ARRAS at the time, his office was in a village outside, in the course of the morning we got in touch with him and he came in and assumed control, but it became clear in the course of the day that G.H.Q. were not the proper people to run this battle. Furthermore they should not stay there or they would rapidly cease to function as G.H.Q. Fortunately in the course of the day General PETRE who was commanding the 12th DIVISION turned up though without his divisional staff at the same time sat the 24th DIVISION were arriving and it was arranged that he should take command of the whole of the forces operating in and around ARRAS including at the time the 23rd DIVISION. In the course of the evening General PETRE having been provided with a staff G.H.Q. handed over to him the task of the defence of ARRAS and the neighbourhood including the 23rd DIVISION in DOULLENS and General PETRE became a Commander acting in the ordinary way directly under G.H.Q. G.H.Q. withdrew the next day.

    A. (BRIGADIER LEESE) Then, Sir, it was decided in view of the exposed position of the 23rd DIVISION on the line of RUYALCOURT - ARLEUX to withdraw those troops and permission was given for them to withdraw in behind ARRAS. Unfortunately for various reasons their withdrawal orders were late and the collection of the troops was rather late on the ground and a certain number of the troops moving by mechanical transport by daylight ran into enemy armoured vehicles on their way back to ARRAS.

    Q. They had absolutely no communications of any sort or kind?

    A. They had nothing at all except their Staff and one or two Liaison Officers in motors.

    Q. And they must have been on a front of about 20 miles?

    A. They were on an enormous front. It was an order by the French to hold that front. The French said they were definitely coming up on both flanks. They only came up on the Left flank and there was a long wait before they come up from the VALENCIENNES area. That was the reason why in this completely exposed position they were drawn in. As a matter of fact they did not have many casualties while fighting; the casualties took place during this unfortunate incident when they were caught on the road in mechanical transport.

    We will leave that position of the 23rd DIVISION such as were left drawn back behind ARRAS, the ARRAS garrison in position in ARRAS and on the night of the 18/19th the final withdrawal to the OUREQ was successfully carried out and the position then was with the FIRST CORPS on the Left with altogether six division in the line and the fifth division in G.H.Q. reserve.
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    On the following day the situation in the gap became more serious. Every day in this gap the enemy armoured divisions were advancing further and the enemy motorised infantry coming up behind them were extending further towards the North both driving themselves mainly in the direction of ABBEVILLE, BOULOGNE and CALAIS and the off-shoots coming in towards the Canal which was to be our direction moving generally towards the sea so the 25th INFANTRY BRIGADE, a brigade which had been given to the 50th DIVISION before operation began was moved by troop carrying transport and placed under the command of MAC FORCE to continue the protection to our Right flank.

    The following day, the 20th, after consultation between the C-in-C. with the Army Group Commander - I think General BIART was still there, either General BIART was there or General BLANCHARD. I do not think General BIART had had his accident at that time - we received orders to carry out an attack in a Southerly direction in order to try and stop the gap and to join up with an attack which was to be carried out from the Southermost part of the gap. It was considered that this attack should definitely be carried out on the following day and that there was great haste and that if we did not do it as quickly as possible the fleeting opportunity would pass.
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    Osborne2 Well-Known Member

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    skimmod Senior Member

    fascinating thread, thank you for taking the time to type up and share.@dbf

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