Chapter 18: Fight for the Somme Crossings, 26th May to 4th June, 1940
As soon as it was known that the 1st Armoured Division (and the 51st when it arrived from the Saar) was to come under French orders, General Evans, accompanied by Colonel Briggs, went so see General Altmayer at his headquarters.(1) There he was given verbal instructions. On the following day (the 26th) the 2nd Armoured Brigade was to concentrate in the Biencourt area, six miles east of Gamaches, and be prepared to support the French 2nd Cavalry Division in a further attack on the German positions; the 3rd Armoured Brigade which had now arrived was to concentrate in the Buigny area, three miles east of Beauchamps, and be ready to similarly to support the French 5th Mechanised Cavalry Division.
The 3rd Armoured Brigade consisted of the 2nd and 5th Battalions of the Royal Tank Regiment, the 3rd Battalion having been diverted to Calais, as will be remembered.
Orders for an attack on the Abbeville bridgehead were issued at nine o’clock on the morning of the 26th.(2) (See map facing page 270.)
The 2nd Armoured Brigade were placed under the orders of Colonel Berniquet, commanding the French 2nd Light Cavalry Division, and on conjunction with the French division were to capture high ground south of the Somme from Bray to Les Planches inclusive—that is the ground overlooking the Somme immediately south-east of Abbeville. The French were to supply artillery and infantry support for the armour. The 3rd Armoured Brigade was to come under command of General Chenoine, commanding the French 5th Light Cavalry Division, and had as its objective the high ground covering the northern sector of the Somme from Rouvroy to St Valery sur Somme. There also the French were to supply artillery and infantry to support their attack.(3) The enemy were reported to be holding a bridgehead extending as far west as Grébault Mesnil, to have armoured patrols between them and Eu on the Bresle, and to have anti-tank weapons in position. General Evans and Colonel Briggs explained to General Besson (commanding the French Third Group of Armies) and General Frère (commanding the French Seventh Army) and the British tanks were not slow, heavily-armoured tanks designed to fight with infantry but light tanks (about
5 tons) and cruisers (12–14 tons) designed to exploit open warfare and not to support infantry in breaking through prepared positions; they should be compared with those of a French light mechanised division and not with those of a French armoured division.(4)
On May the 27th the attack was launched. It was to have started at five in the morning, but was put back for an hour as the French gunners were not ready. The 2nd Armoured Brigade and the French 2nd Light Cavalry Division were on the right and their advance started from the area Hocquincourt–Frucourt–St Maxent to the east of the Blangy–Abbeville road. The 3rd Armoured Brigade and the French 5th Light Cavalry Division were on the left and started from the line of the Bresle to the north of Gamaches.(5) There had been no time for careful reconnaissance and only vague information about the German strength and positions was available. The country between the Bresle and Somme is an undulating plateau from which a number of small rivers wind their way down to the Somme and the Bresle through wooded valleys. It is well studded with villages; all of them are half-hidden in trees and stand, wooded oases, in the open cultivated fields through which they must be approached. The outposts of the German bridgehead covering Abbeville were in fact as far out from the river as Moyenneville, Huppy, Caumont and Bailleul, and in each they had anti-tank guns hidden in the woods and well dug-in. Against such prepared positions tanks could do little without the close support of artillery and infantry, but this was not forthcoming in anything like adequate manner. Cooperation with the French divisions was ineffective, and close mutual support almost non-existent.
On the right wing the tanks could make but little progress, and in trying to get forward suffered severely from anti-tank guns in Caumont and Huppy which caught them at close quarters as they crossed ridges of open ground. On the left wing the 3rd Armoured Brigade found less opposition outside the enemy’s Abbeville bridgehead and reached the high ground overlooking the Somme near Cambron and Saigneville and the outskirts of St Valery sur Somme at the river mouth. But no supporting troops to occupy the ground were up with them and when it was learned in the afternoon that the French were taking up defensive positions behind them at Behen, Quesnoy, and Brutelles the tanks were withdrawn. Nothing effective had been achieved. The German hold on the Somme and on their bridgeheads had not been disturbed, but in using cruiser tanks unsupported by artillery and infantry to attack prepared defences we had had heavy losses. Sixty-five had been put out of action by the enemy, though some were recovered; fifty-five had mechanical breakdowns for there had been little opportunity for maintenance since they landed and hurried forward into battle.(6) Light repairs could be effected in
brigade areas but for serious repairs divisional workshops were south-west of Rouen and there shortage of spare parts slowed down the work.
Next day, May the 28th, the French divisions attacked again, and though some elements reached the Somme on the flanks of the German bridgehead and recovered some of their more advanced positions, they could not loosen the enemy’s hold on Abbeville and St Valery. The 1st Armoured Division was not involved in this day’s fighting, being busy reorganising its remaining forces. Only one armoured regiment, the 9th Lancers, was placed in reserve and they were not used. The few remaining tanks of the Bays and the 10th Hussars were now formed by the 2nd Armoured Brigade into a Composite Regiment.(7)
General de Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division then arrived—a much more powerful formation than the French partially-horsed cavalry divisions which had so far been employed, though it had suffered heavily in earlier actions. On the 29th the division attacked astride the Blangy–Abbeville road, but was stopped by well-placed anti-tank defences in the woods and on the ridge running north-west from Villers sur Mareuil. He had little artillery support and there were no infantry to consolidate ground won. Nevertheless he attacked again on the 30th, supported by elements of the other two French divisions on the ground (the 2nd and 5th Light Cavalry Divisions) with the British troops held in reserve.(8) But again the attack failed to dislodge the enemy and for the same reasons. Against prepared positions, now strongly held, armour alone could achieve little. At the end of four days’ fighting the enemy’s bridgeheads remained untaken and the Somme and its crossings were still his.
The fact that the French had made little use of the 1st Armoured Division after the first day’s fighting was doubtless the result of an instruction issued by General Georges on 28th May, following representations made to him by General Evans and by Colonel Briggs and General Swayne. General Georges’ instruction No. 1809 drew the attention of the French commanders to the characteristics and proper employment of the British division, and pointed out that:
The British division therefore bears a closer resemblance to a light mechanised division than to an armoured division. It is, in short, composed of light tanks, very lightly armoured and therefore vulnerable against enemy anti-tank guns.
It is possible that during the recent period of crisis material may have to be used in unfavourable conditions; it is none the less true that the employment of this division should not be contemplated except within the limits allowed by the nature of its equipment unless battle conditions make other arrangements vitally necessary.
Further, we should be ready to use, as soon as possible, the Evans Division within the framework of a tactical group comprising
in particular the 51st Division and the British Armoured Division—a group whose role on our left flank will be determined according to its capabilities.1(19)
For while these abortive attempts were being made to recover the Somme crossings, and while the British Expeditionary Force in the north was being withdrawn into the bridgehead at Dunkirk and evacuated to England, the 51st Division had been arriving in the Bresle area from the Saar front. They have moved under French orders and more than one change of plan had increased difficulties which were in any case inevitable when the situation changed almost hourly, when enemy bombing disrupted communications and delayed trains, and when the French armies south of the Somme–Aisne line were regrouping and moving up towards the southern flank of the German break-through. However, their journey was at least completed and divisional headquarters opened at St Léger, seven miles south of Blangy, on May the 28th. There it came under the command of the French IX Corps.(10)
That simple statement is, however, insufficient to explain the position in regard to command of the British troops in the area south of the Somme. The French Seventh Army, under General Frère, was part of the Third Group of Armies and formed the left wing of the forces of General Georges’ command, which were now deployed south of the Somme–Aisne line. The Seventh Army, in turn, included a group of divisions (Group A) commanded by General Altmayer, and the 51st Division, like the 1st Armoured Division, was included in the IX Corps of this group. Thus the chain of command in this area was as follows:
General Weygand (Supreme Commander)
General Georges (Commander North-East Front)
General Besson (Third Group of Armies)
General Frère (Seventh Army)
General Altmayer (Group A later to become the Tenth Army)
General Ihler (IX Corps)
General Evans (1st Armoured Division)and General Fortune (51st Division)
The British generals were, however, also liable to receive instructions from the War Office, either direct or through the Swayne
Mission. For supplies they were dependent on the British lines of communication which, with all other troops in the area, were now under command of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Karslake. These troops included the improvised forces collected by General Beauman—Beauforce, Vicforce and ‘Digforce’. The latter had been formed from reservists serving in the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. On 31st May there forces were formed into an improved Beauman Division.(11)
There were thus in this small area two British forces: the 51st and 1st Armoured Divisions under French command, and Beauman Division and other lines of communication troops under the command of General Karslake. The former force was taking over a position on and in front of the Bresle for yet another attack on the Somme bridgehead, to be launched in conjunction with French divisions; the latter was holding a defensive line behind the Bresle, on the Andelle and Béthune rivers covering Rouen, Dieppe and Havre. From the latter places, meanwhile, the evacuation of non-fighting troops and surplus stores and equipment had begun.
For while the Government intended to rebuild the British Expeditionary Force as quickly as possible after Dunkirk, it was obvious that this would require time. Only a small fighting force could be sent in the near future; it must at first be regarded as evidence of British intentions rather than a substantial contribution to the battle. Meanwhile it was desirable to withdraw as many as possible of the surplus non-fighting troops from lines of communication, base depots, and other establishments which had been formed to sustain a far larger army than we could send to France immediately.
The evacuation from Dunkirk was making a deep impression on the mind and heart of the nation, and when it was concluded a great sigh of relief went up; but with it was joined the knowledge that the enemy was now in sight of the cliffs of Dover and that he might attempt at any moment to invade England. Thankfulness merged with tense anxiety, and the nation turned with new fervour and concentration to preparation for defence. So it came about that comparatively little public attention was paid to what was happening in France after Dunkirk. Yet 140,000 British troops were still there.
Further naval operations, designed to cover the evacuation of all but the small fighting forces which remained in France and the services to maintain them, were now beginning. They involved the evacuation of surplus men and material from Dieppe, Havre, Cherbourg, Brest, St Nazaire, and La Pallice. Eventually when France fell, all remaining British forces were included and evacuations were extended to ports as far south as the Spanish border and to the Mediterranean. But this is looking ahead.
The Navy’s complicated task was to be rendered more difficult by
the fact that losses at Dunkirk and in operations in Norway and elsewhere—not directly related to the campaign in France and Flanders and therefore not recorded in this volume—had temporarily weakened the Home Fleet, though its fighting strength was not seriously impaired. In particular the number of flotilla vessels necessary to provide escorts for all the shipping which would be needed to evacuate men and material from several widely separated harbours did not at this time exist. On the other hand, as already noted, losses which the Navy had inflicted on the German fleet left the enemy with insufficient strength in surface ships to dispute control of sea communications between France and England. For unexplained reasons, though some seven German submarines were stationed off the west coast of France while these evacuations were in progress, they made no effort to intervene;(12) as had been the case in the operations off Holland, only the German Air Force tried to make evacuation impossible. It will be seen later how completely the Luftwaffe again failed.
By the end of May all medical stores had been cleared from Dieppe and a demolition party had been landed to destroy the port installations should that become necessary.(13) The progress of naval operations will be followed in due relation to the subsequent events of the campaign.
The big supply depot at Havre had been reduced to small dimensions by the expedient of using it to feed troops in the area and by not replenishing it. All the ordnance stores had been cleared except those needed for immediate use. The assortment of reserve motor transport vehicles at Rouen had been drawn on to equip the improved fighting forces. Certain special types of ammunition in short supply had been removed from the great ammunition reserves in the Buchy area, but to move the thousands of tons which remained there was beyond our available resources of transport and manpower.
Although by the end of May General Weygand had been forced to abandon the intention to attack northwards from the Somme–Aisne line, he still regarded the recapture of the enemy’s bridgeheads south of the Somme as an essential measure of defence against the German attack towards Paris which was now expected daily. So General Georges decided that, after a few days’ pause for reorganisation and regrouping, the attack on the Abbeville–St Valery bridgehead should be renewed early on the morning of June the 4th.(14)
Certain changes were taking place in both French and British forces in the area. General Altmayer’s Group in the French Seventh Army now became a separate Tenth Army, still under his command and still including the French IX Corps with our 1st Armoured Division and the 51st Division. General de Gaulle’s division was however withdrawn (except for the divisional artillery) and in its
place two new French divisions, the 31st (Alpine) and the 2nd Armoured were brought in to the Tenth Army.(15)
As already stated the improved forces under General Beauman had been reorganised as Beauman Division, with headquarters, three infantry brigades, a regiment of anti-tank guns, a battery of field artillery, and other divisional services. There had been a point at which the British Government had informed General Karslake that all improvised forces should be disbanded and evacuated to England, and only sufficient lines of communication troops kept to maintain in France a British force of one armoured and four infantry divisions and an Advanced Air Striking Force—which was all that we could hope to provide in the immediate future. But General Georges represented the importance of retaining Beauman Division on the Andelle–Béthune line. Their withdrawal would, he said, have ‘an unfortunate effect on the French Army and the French people’. The War Office accordingly agreed to their remaining.(16)
In the first days of June, therefore, the disposition of British troops in this area was as follows.
The 51st Division, with the Composite Regiment and what remained of the Support Group of the 1st Armoured Division under command, and itself under the command of the IX Corps of General Altmayer’s French Tenth Army, was relieving two French divisions in the forward positions facing the Germans’ Abbeville–St Valery bridgehead preparation for the projected renewal of the attempt to recapture them.(17) Of the 51st Division the 152nd and 154th Brigades were forward; the 153rd in reserve on the Bresle between Senarpont and Blangy. The nine-mile stretch of the Bresle on their right was held by an anti-tank battery and a company of the Kensington’s machine guns, with the Composite Regiment from the 1st Armoured Division behind them. In the sixteen-mile stretch on the 153rd Brigade’s left was the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers (Pioneers). The Support Group of the 1st Armoured Division held a flanking position between Aumale and Forges. Beauman Division, not yet under French command, was disposed in the fifty-five mile stretch between Pont St Pierre (evel miles south-east of Rouen near the junction of the rivers Andelle and Seine) and the coast at Dieppe. Thus we had one Territorial division (the 51st), one improvised division (Beauman) and a fragment of the 1st Armoured Division; and these were distributed over an eighteen-mile-wide front, forty-five miles of the Bresle and fifty-five miles of the Andelle–Béthune line. That was our situation on the morning of June the 4th when for the last time we tried to recover the Abbeville bridgehead. On our right flank were other formations of the French IX Corps.
Abbeville is overlooked from the west by the long Mont de Caubert spur which runs northward from Mareuil–Caubert and by a
ridge of high ground west of Rouvroy. These twin ridges, dominating the roads which lead into the town, were to be captured by two French divisions (31st Infantry Division and 2nd Armoured Division). On the right of the 2nd Armoured Division, infantry of the 51st Division (152nd Brigade) were to capture Caubert and the woods which border the road from there to Bray, while the 153rd Brigade on the left of the 31st Infantry Division took the high ground south on the left of the 31st Infantry Division took the high ground south of Gouy. The 154th Brigade was not to advance but engage enemy troops in the area of St Valery sur Somme by fire, so as to prevent them from reinforcing the Abbeville bridgehead. Finally the Composite Regiment of the 1st Armoured Division was to be held in reserve near St Léger.(18) Thus the result of the operation would depend mainly on whether the French divisions could succeeded in their attempt to capture the Mont de Caubert spur and the ridge in the centre. The flank attacks were designed to protect and make good this central position; unless the central position were in our hands, ground won in the flank attacks could not be maintained.
Both the French divisions were put under command of General Fortune’s 51st Division. They had just moved into the area; indeed, some units of the 31st Division only arrived there an hour and a half before the attack was timed to begin. Reconnaissance on the previous afternoon was consequently sketchy.(19) Few and inadequate air photographs were available and there was but little opportunity to explain to the troops the tasks they were immediately to undertake. Few of the positions held by the enemy’s troops and artillery had been identified, and as no aircraft were there to report enemy movement to the artillery our gunners could only shoot at what seemed to be likely positions for German guns, or for the massing of German troops. The attack was to start at three o’clock in the morning.
On that 4th of June a low summer mist overhung the valley of the lower Somme, shrouding the tanks and troops from distant observation without hampering their movements. Ten minutes before zero hour the quiet of the morning was broken. A barrage, planned to cover the French tank attack in the right centre, came down on the woods round Bienfay and Villers where there were known to be enemy posts. After ten minutes the barrage lifted, and though the heavy French tanks did not appear, the 2nd Seaforth set about their task of clearing enemy posts in the forward edge of the woods.(20) In this they succeeded, but when the tanks arrived they had missed the cover of the barrage and as they advanced between the Blangy–Abbeville road and the woods near Villers they came, first, upon an undetected minefield and, shortly after, under heavy fire from field and anti-tank guns well sited and dug in. A number of tanks were blown up or set on fire in the minefield and subsequent casualties from gunfire were severe, but some reached the base of the Mont de
Caubert ridge and some Mesnil Trois Foetus, from which they drove the enemy.
The 4th Seaforth Highlanders, meanwhile, who were to follow up the attack supported by light tanks, waited till three of the latter arrived and then went forward on the south-eastern side of the Villers woods. They soon came under withering machine-gun fire from Mont de Caubert, but in spite of mounting casualties strove vainly to reach the heavy tanks. Both they and the tanks they sought to reach had shot their bolt. The latter had suffered crippling losses, and when they were ordered to retire to the position held in the morning six out of thirty heavy tanks reported, and only 60 out of 120 of the light tanks.(21)
The 4th Camerons also failed to capture their objective south of Caubert. The whole position was too well covered by dug-in German machine guns. At one point advancing German infantry were encountered and there was hard fighting in the standing corn. Two platoons under Second Lieutenant Ross did indeed succeed in fighting their way into Caubert but they could not be supported and were cut off. (Two days later Ross succeeded in leading his party, most of whom were wounded, back through the enemy’s lines to rejoin at Martainneville le Bus.) The 152nd Brigade had lost 20 officers and 543 other ranks.(22)
Things had gone no better in the left centre. They only regiment of the French 31st Division to be employed could make but little progress, being held almost from the start by enemy dug-in in the woods west of Mesnil Trois Foetus.
Only the 153rd Brigade’s attack on the left flank was more successful. There the 1st Black Watch, who were holding the line of the Cahon valley when the attacked opened, pushed forward and established themselves in the Petit Bois to cover the flank of the 1st Gordons. The latter meanwhile issued from Gouy, drove the enemy out of the Grand Bois, and by noon reached the high ground at the eastern side. This was their objective, and heaving done all that they were ordered to do they were yet anxious to go on. But while the high ground overlooking the Somme north-west of Caubert remained in enemy hands, it was impracticable to hold the ground won by the Gordons’ attack, much less to extend it. To their great disappointment they were ordered to give up their gains and return to their starting point.(23)
The bridgehead which we had sought to wrest from the enemy in this attack was strong one. The Germans had been holding it for the past fortnight and their troops had had ample time to site their defences and dig themselves in. The Allied troops had had no opportunity for adequate preparation. The Gordons and their supporting artillery had arranged a system of signals by Very light which worked
admirably and was a potent factor in the reduction of German machine-gun positions. But in the rest of the battle no similarly successful cooperation was achieved, and in its absence had much to do with the failure of tanks and infantry to overcome the enemy defence in the centre and on the right flank. For the rest, insufficient preparation and consequent faults in the coordination of forces largely account for the failure of the action. But chiefly it was due to the fact that, notwithstanding all that had gone before, the strength of the German bridgeheads was still underestimated.
The positions we held when, in the early morning of the 5th Operation ‘Red’ began and the German divisions assembled on the north of the Somme went over from the defensive to the attack, lay back from the river on a line running from Caumont south of Abbeville to Sallenelle near the sea.(24)
Nothing has been said so far about the part played by the Air Force in the operations south of the Somme which had been described. Inevitably, as will be seen, it was a small part, for until the final evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in the north was completed almost all our available air strength was engaged in the battle over Dunkirk and the bridgehead.
Air Marshal Barratt and the small air forces left under his command in France when the Air Component was withdrawn to England were effectively separated from the northern battle. He could only communicate with Lord Gort by way of the Air Ministry and War Office, and in any case the diminished Advanced Air Striking Force, now stationed near Troyes in Champagne, could not intervene at Dunkirk. For the remaining six squadrons of bombers were unsuitable for day bombing without strong fighting protection and the three fighter squadrons (even if they could have been spared) could not operate so far from their bases. The bombers were therefore employed during this period against German communications, while the fighters provided what patrols they could over the fighting south of the Somme.(25) On May the 28th the daily situation report of the German Air Ministry states that ‘German battle reconnaissance over the area south of Amiens was thwarted by stiff enemy fighter defence’.2(26) But patrols by a small force could be neither strong nor frequent. Anything from one flight (four aircraft) to one squadron (sixteen at full strength) went out at intervals and remained in the air for as long as possible: but even this slender cover could only be maintained for periods which added up to about three hours out of the twenty-four. It is not wholly surprising therefore
that they only encountered the enemy on five days in the twelve-day period which ended on June the 4th.
In the days when the battle in which the British Expeditionary Force was engaged drew nearer and nearer to the northern coast, the decision to operate from England both the Air Component and the additional fighter squadrons which the Government supplied on French representations was reasonable. But the Air Ministry realised that if fighting moved further away from the airfields in Kent the fighters would have to use airfields in France to refuel and rearm. Arrangements were accordingly made with the French for the use of three airfields north-west of Paris and two south of the Seine.(27) Air Marshal Barratt’s headquarters collected an improvised ground staff, with servicing sections, armourers, defence units and transport; and in the last week of May these airfields were brought into use by the fighter squadrons of the Advanced Air Striking Force based in Champagne. The England-based squadrons were at that time busy over Dunkirk and for the moment had no need to use the French airfields.
This small fighter force became known as South Component. Operation control was at first retained in England. Air Marshal Barratt—surely with good reason—questioned the practicability of such remote control, but the plan was adhered to till the German offensive southwards started on June the 5th. Only then, under the pressure of events, was operational control of South Component transferred to the commander on the spot.
In the situation which existed other inescapable difficulties were sufficiently great in any case. One may be mentioned. Fighters based in Champagne and in England were to operate from South Component airfields near Rouen. Weather must therefore be favourable simultaneously in these widely separated areas and over the battlefield, if all available forces were to be brought to the battle in the due order planned. There were days when unfavourable weather at one point or another prevented this.
So long as the Dunkirk battle in the north absorbed almost all our available air strength, stronger forces could not be supplied for the fighting south of the Somme. But it is clear that the small size of the forces employed, their geographical disposition, and the arrangements for their operational control combine to explain the limited measure of achievement. Of that the most can be said with certainty is that our bombing of columns and communications and our patrols over the fighting did some damage to the enemy, but not enough to stop him bringing forward the forces he needed or to prevent his air attacks on Allied troops and positions. They did something to hinder movement and to weaken or interrupt Luftwaffe assaults, but they could not stop either.
In the two days which preceded the opening of the enemy’s new
offensive the German air force again designed their bombing attacks to weaken the French defence. Their report records attacks on sixteen French airfields, five depots, on air parks and several aircraft works near Paris
At nine o’clock in the morning of June the 4th the remnants of the French northern armies who had not been evacuated surrendered at Dunkirk. All depended now on the troops who barred the enemy’s progress southwards.
As early as May the 25th General Weygand had seen little hope of a successful defence of the Somme–Aisne line and had then advised his Government that the desirability of asking for an armistice should be discussed with the British Government. He had also told them that he did not consider possible a retreat from the Somme–Aisne line, though a breach of that long, thinly-held front would make it impossible to continue useful military operations.(29) It was thus with inadequate forces and in a mood of inevitable defeat that the French High Command waited for the opening of the final battle.