These Were The Last Defenders of Arras

Discussion in '1940' started by Drew5233, Nov 5, 2011.

  1. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    This battle would make a great book, wouldn't it?

    A newspaper clipping from the Daily Telegraph about the battle found in A and E Battery, 1 Royal Horse Artillery war diary

  2. Oldman

    Oldman Very Senior Member

    Agree about the book, in the context of your posts you seem to be the most knowledgeable and have the documentation to be able to produce a very good product.
  3. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    This battle would make a great book, wouldn't it?

    It certainly would do. When are you starting it?
  4. RemeDesertRat

    RemeDesertRat Very Senior Member

    Agree about the book, in the context of your posts you seem to be the most knowledgeable and have the documentation to be able to produce a very good product.

    I thought Drew was researching The 10 volume epic: The BEF at war ? :D
  5. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    I thought Drew was researching The 10 volume epic: The BEF at war ? :D

    Funny you should mention that. It has been already discussed with Andrea, assuming I win the Euro Lottery that is. I'll fund it and pay the historians to research it and the authors to write it.
  6. RemeDesertRat

    RemeDesertRat Very Senior Member

    I'll fund it and pay the historians to research it and the authors to write it.

    You're really Katie Price aren't you? :D
  7. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD
    (Drew's post transcribed for search engine purposes)

    [Handwritten on top:] A lot of this is hot air but it gives a check on dates.


    By DOUGLAS WILLIAMS, Daily Telegraph War Correspondent.

    Of all the towns in the B.E.F. area of northern FRANCE non except DUNKIR is better known to British soldiers or to the British public than ARRAS, a comfortable little market-town of 20,000 people, whose ancient cobble stones through the centuries echoed to the marching feet of armies of all nations.

    From October to May it was the nerve centre of the Expeditionary Force. There Lord GORT had his headquarters, and through its glass-domed station in packed trains, or down its main streets in rattling lorries, passed at one time or other most of the units that made up the B.E.F.

    It may therefore be of special interest to describe its siege, and its defence by a heroic but inadequate garrison until, reduced to a shambles of shattered brick, with its streets ankle-deep in broken glass, the burning city was finally abandoned to the advancing Panzer divisions of the German Army.

    The story begins on May 18, when rear G.H.Q. - Lord GORT's advanced headquarters at that time being in BELGIUM - decided, under the threat of enemy tanks reported as near as St. QUENTIN, to retire. The defence of the city and surrounding area was handed over to General PETRE, summoned from his 12th DIVISION Headquarters at ABBEVILLE, who later came under the orders of General FRANKLYN as G.O.C. of the area, with Headquarters at VIMY.

    Available troops, necessarily scanty, were disposed to the best advantage to meet the Germans. The 36th INFANTRY BRIGADE (commanded by Brigadier ROUPELL, V.C.), which was subsequently overrun by the Germans, was posted round DOULLENS, to guard the back areas, with one battalion (ROYAL WEST KENTS) detached to guard the SOMME crossings at PERONNE. Two brigades of the 23rd DIVISION, Territorials, were strung along the CANAL DU NORD, to face the enemy coming through the 20-mile gap they had made in that area.

    For the defence of the city itself were available one battalion of WELSH GUARDS, some mixed units of G.H.Q. troops, such as construction companies, supply details, and the like, and a somewhat battered French Armoured Division. Except for the WELSH GUARDS, the British troops, whose duties up to that time had been largely civilian, were necessarily ill-trained and ill-equipped to meet a formidable enemy. There was little or no artillery available, although later a battery of 25-pounders was lent by the 5th DIVISION and a two-pounder Anti-Tank Battery came from the 50th DIVISION.

    General PETRE established his Headquarters in the ancient pile of the PALAIS ST. VAAST, whose underground cellars furnished perfect protection against air raids. Two Officers were lent to him as Staff Officers, but he had no clerks and no communications but a few gallant despatch riders (plus a wireless set which worked intermittently) and one cipher Officer. He was almost completely cut off from G.H.Q. except for the rare arrival of a Liaison Officer after a perilous trip over heavily shelled roads: he fully realised that the enemy was determined, at all costs, to capture ARRAS - a key city in the communications of Northern FRANCE.

    Ammunition was plentiful, and there were stocks of food, including one of the N.A.A.F.I. depots, the luxurious stores of which, distributed gratis, were much enjoyed.

    By this time the population of the city had dwindled to a mere 3,000 all of whom had sought refuge in civil A.R.P. shelters or in the famous caves, formed by the excavation through centuries of local building stone, in which during previous sieges the people of ARRAS had taken shelter from the enemy. The streets were deserted, houses and shops shuttered.

    The defending troops were posted along the Southern and Eastern perimeter of the city in hastily constructed strong points and machine-gun posts. From May 20th heavy fighting developed, with frequent raids by dive bombers, which caused some casualties and made communications difficult. Welcome reinforcements arrived in the shape of the GREEN HOWARDS and the ROYAL NORTHUMBERLAND FUSILIERS, but enemy pressure was such that General PETRE decided that he could not continue to hold the outskirts of the town to the South, and a withdrawal was ordered to the line of the Railway station.

    The bridge over the cutting was blown, and the cutting itself, six or seven railway lines broad at that point, was converted into an impenetrable tank obstacle by piling railway trains together four or five deep. Engines with open throttles were allowed to smash into each other until the whole area was a solid mass of jumbled carriages and smashed rolling stock, behind which, and from the windows of houses on the main Square facing the Station, the British garrison took up its new defensive position.

    Heavy incendiary bombing was carried out by the enemy that afternoon. It started many fires which, owing to lack of wind, continued to smoulder, covering the whole city with a pall of black smoke. By May 22nd the pressure round the town had become intense and Lord GORT, through General FRANKLY, decided that some kind of offensive was essential.

    The purpose of the attack was twofold. First, G.H.Q. was very anxious to make some co-operative attempt Southwards to join hands with the French, who were understood to be on the eve of launching their eagerly-awaited counter-attack Northwards. Secondly, it was hoped to relieve the ARRAS garrison.

    The task was entrusted to General MARTELL, of the 50th DIVISION, who was given for the purpose one of his own brigades, consisting of DURHAM LIGHT INFANTRY and a tank brigade.

    General MARTELL was instructed to clear an area about 10 miles deep and four miles wide West and South of ARRAS, by forming his forces into two small mobile columns which would advance along parallel lines a few miles apart. His troops had had little rest for several days, and moreover it was their first encounter with the Germans. Therefore the test was a high one for Territorials and high praise is due to them for their gallantry.

    Each column consisted of the following:-
    One Infantry battalion,
    One Anti-Tank battery,
    One battery 18-pounders,
    One company Machine-Guns,
    One Tank battalion.

    The operation went well in the initial stages. The Left column did fine work, put many enemy tanks out of action, captured 400 Prisoners, and killed many Germans. The Right column made some progress, but was held up by unexpectedly heavy enemy forces and was also upset by the erratic behaviour of the French Armoured Division, which, while co-operating with our forces, mistook our troops for Germans and opened fire on them. Unfortunately also about this time both Commanding Officers of the Tank battalion were killed, while the Commander of one of the Infantry battalions was also killed when the tank in which he was riding suffered a direct hit from a German field gun.

    By 6 p.m. it became evident that further progress was impossible; from Observation Points reinforcements of enemy tanks, with infantry in 'buses, could be seen moving down the road from CAMBRAI. Some were destroyed by direct fire, but the pressure became greater and greater, and heavy counter-attacks were launched on the Anti-Tank localities which the two columns had established respectively at BEAURAINS and WARLUS.

    The enemy also began a series of desperate attempts to cross the River SCARPE. A bridging train was destroyed by our Artillery, but the German infantry continued to press forward in waves to launch their assault boats. Our Bren guns could not fire fast enough to cope with the packed masses of Germans, who dashed forward frantically, suffering tremendous losses.

    In view of the enemy's obvious superiority in strength, both columns began to withdraw North of the city, where General PETRE's force had already realised that they could not hold out much longer. With much of the city burning, the streets harassed hourly by dive-bombing and with continual alarms at points all round the perimeter, defence was becoming more and more difficult. German forces, some of them appearing in various disguises, had already reached the area of the Citadel, and preparations were discussed for a last stand at the Palais.

    Finally at 1.30 on the morning of May 24th a dishevelled and exhausted Liaison Officer arrived at General PETRE's Headquarters, after a five-hour motor trip, with orders from Lord GORT for a general withdrawal. Only two hours remained before daybreak, but the evacuation took place in perfect order.

    It was started down the DOUAIS road, but just outside ARRAS it was found that the bridge over the SCARPE had been prematurely blown. It was at first considered a misfortune, but later turned out to be a blessing in disguise when a scouting party of some 20 which had crossed the broken span were captured by a large party of Germans a short way down the road. The remaining columns were then switched to the HENIN LIETARD road, which at that time was the only free exit from the beleaguered city, the Germans having occupied at least 330 degrees of the 360 perimeter.

    All that morning General PETRE's force, together with remnants of the 5th and 50th DIVISIONS, moved in a packed mass, nose to tail, down the narrow road; but, by some dispensation of Providence, not a single German 'plane was in the air, and the whole force reached comparative safety North of DOUAI without interference and without casualties.

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  8. wtid45

    wtid45 Very Senior Member

    You're really Katie Price aren't you? :D
    No he's the love child of Nancy Drew :lol:

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