Chapter 20: From the Bresle to St Valery, 9th June to 12th June, 1940
On the morning of June the 9th German armoured troops entered Rouen unopposed.(1) The bridges over the Seine had been destroyed and French and British troops had left the city; the 51st Division (with the French IX Corps) was now finally severed from the main Allied forces for there were no bridges over the Seine below Rouen. Opposite the position they had held on the Bresle and sweeping round the right flank, where there was now no one to stop them, were ten German divisions.(2)
Two movements started that day. The French IX Corps began to retire and the German armoured divisions turned north to intercept them. It will be best to follow these movements to their tragic conclusion before tracing what happened on the Seine and beyond it.
In planning the withdrawal of the 51st Division in conformity with the movements of the French on his right, General Fortune divided his forces into two more or less equal parts; these were to leapfrog each other as the move progressed. For the first move, 153rd and A Brigades were to retire to a line between Envermeu and Belleville sur Mer, while the 154th and 152nd Brigades occupied the Béthune behind them.(3) Withdrawal began during the night and, although greatly hampered and considerably delayed by congestion of refugee and other traffic on the roads, was duly completed. All available Royal Army Service Corps vehicles made double trips to carry the troops, but even so some units did not reach their new positions till well into the morning of June the 9th.
Fortunately the enemy were slow to follow up the withdrawal—perhaps because they were delayed at two of the Bresle crossings, which were held by D Company of the 4th Border Regiment and A Company of the 1st/5th Sherwood Foresters. Orders for the withdrawal failed to reach these two companies and in default of orders to move they stood fast. For six days they held on, denying for that week the passage of the river which they had been ordered to guard. Not only did they beat off all the enemy’s attacks and withstand his efforts to dislodge them, but they made prisoner some of their attackers. Only on June the 13th when the Germans had brought up artillery and mortars to reduce their position and when they learnt that all other fighting north of the Seine had ceased, did they at last yield.(4) It was a soldierly performance in the best tradition.
The remnants of the Support Group in the Basse Forêt d’Eu joined the French 2nd and 5th Light Cavalry divisions (both very weak in numbers but still strong in fighting spirit) in the Forêt d’Eawy. The French Tenth Army Headquarters had moved south and all communication with their IX Corps had been broken. General Fortune too was ‘out of touch with everyone’ for reasons which will appear.(5) Only rumours of the German progress had reached him when a dispatch rider arrived during the morning of the 9th with a message from Colonel R. B. Butler who commanded a small British garrison at Havre; he had been told by the French Admiral of the port that the enemy were already in Rouen. On this General Fortune saw the IX Corps commander who agreed that the objective of their withdrawal must now be changed from Rouen to Havre.(6)
The circumstances which had forced this change of plan were not yet known to the War Office. During the morning they received a message from General Marshall-Cornwall (now chiefly concerned with what was happening on the Seine, since the IX Corps was divorced from all control by the French Tenth Army) urging that independent action be taken to extricate the 51st Division, ‘possible Havre if Germans too busy elsewhere’. Later he sent another report that the division appear to have withdrawn successfully to the Béthune and ‘its withdrawal via Havre now seems the only chance’.(7)
The War Office then informed the Howard-Vyse Mission at General Weygand’s headquarters of a report that ‘Admiral commanding Havre had given orders to 51st Division to withdraw to that place. He has also asked for ships to evacuate approximately 60,000 French and 25,000 British from Havre to Trouville, Caen and Cherbourg. Is this in conformity with General Weygand’s plan?’(8) The C.I.G.S. had understood that the intention was to direct withdrawal on lower Seine on either side of Rouen and he still considered this to be the right policy. About the time this message was dispatched and before there could be any reply, a report from General Fortune was received that the IX Corps was withdrawing on Havre. It had been sent by dispatch rider to Havre and telephoned from there, for General Fortune wrote ‘I am now out of touch with everyone owing to the fact that I am not in possession of the recent code. All communications to me should be in clear or French code.’(9) This report was confirmed by a further message which read:
… Ninth Corps including 31 and 40 Divisions and two weak cavalry divisions moving west to Le Havre 51 Division on sea. Sending rear-guard to reinforce French on line Fécamp–Lillebonne.
My speed depends on French movement about 20 kilos a day. Tomorrow morning line should be Dieppe. Essential that air delay enemy movement mostly AFV to south on Saint Saens–Bolbec road also his infantry advance from east. Air support requested to prevent unrestrained
bombing. Naval support along coast also of great moral support. If enemy break through French or cut me off from Le Havre will attempt pivot on one of northern ports or in hope of evacuating a few men from behind bridgehead. My rear-guard assisting French Fécamp–Lillebonne has orders to drive on Le Havre to attempt embarkation of as many men as possible.
Thus on the night of the 9th the War Office knew that the 51st was withdrawing to Havre and the French Admiral there was asking for ships to be sent for evacuation. Only General Weygand still clung to the belief that the IX Corps could cross the Seine. For on the following day he issued an order and sent it via the Admiralty and the War Office, with a request that it might be passed to the 51st Division, for delivery to the commander of the IX Corps! This read: ‘Orders of General Weygand dated 10th June. Fall back on the Seine below Caudebec inclusive. Protect your front in the direction Gournay–Rouen by occupying defensive position behind anti-tank obstacles. In cooperation with Admiral le Havre reinforce bridgehead Fécamp–Lillebonne. Higher authority will prepare means of crossing’.(11) [i.e. crossing the Seine]
It would have been quite impossible for the depleted IX Corps to carry out all these tasks while north of the Seine ten German divisions were thrusting westwards even if the order had been issued on June the 9th. By the 10th it had no relevance to the facts of the situation, as will be seen when the events of that day are described.
But first the story of the 9th must be completed. Colonel Butler’s message had urged the need of stronger forces to protect Havre and General Fortune ordered two brigades of infantry—the 154th and A Brigade, with artillery, engineers and supply units to proceed at once to organise a line covering Havre from Fécamp to Lillebonne. Brigadier A. C. L. Stanley Clarke was to command this force which, as it was formed at Arques la Bataille, was known as ‘Arkforce’.(12) He was to take under his command two French battalions and some 75-mm. guns already on the position. General Fortune’s orders added: ‘Should it be apparent that enemy attack from the south or east on the IX Corps has made any organise evacuation from Havre impossible you will withdraw and evacuate at Havre as many of your force as you can, destroying all material and taking off such material as can be carried’.
With characteristic promptitude Arkforce started for Havre within a few hours, moving off in the night of the 9th/10th while the rest of the 51st Division continued its withdrawal to the Béthune after blowing bridges on the Arques and the Eaulne.(13) This time the enemy followed up quickly. At Arques la Bataille and at Martigny the 4th Seaforth and the 1st Black Watch had to fight hard throughout the 10th to retain the river crossings. In doing so they were greatly
assisted by the guns of the 1st Royal Horse Artillery and elsewhere the artillery drove off a number of German attacks.
But, while the two brigades retained in 51st Division thus maintained the integrity of their front throughout June the 10th, a threat to their right rear was developing which General Fortune had no means to combat. As already indicated, the German armoured divisions, having driven the remainder of the French Tenth Army across the Seine and having taken Rouen, had turned north towards Dieppe and the coast.(14) Arkforce, having started early, moved unmolested to its destination, but a wireless lorry, dispatched to follow and form a link between Arkforce and the division, ran into tanks of the 7th Armoured Division near Cany about eleven o’clock in the morning. The operator was only able to send a short message of this before the enemy closed in and the lorry was captured.(15)
Cany is on the Durdent, to which river the 51st Division planned to retire in the coming night—the night, that is, of the 10th/11th June. On receipt of this wireless message the 1st Lothians, who had been doing flank-guard duty, with four anti-tank guns and four machine-guns were ordered to make a reconnaissance to the west. They found that the Durdent crossings not only at Cany but also at Veulettes near the sea coast were already held by the enemy.(16) Meanwhile, too, other reports indicated that the enemy were advancing northwards from the neighbourhood of Rouen towards the coast. The presence of their tanks only six miles from the 51st Division’s headquarters was reported in the afternoon, and rear formations of the division, which had begun to move westwards in preparation for the night’s withdrawal, ran into the enemy at various places near Cany and Veulettes.
More serious news followed. Destroyers which had for some days been operating off the coast in support of the 51st Division found themselves under fire from guns which the enemy had already installed on the cliffs near St Valery. The Ambuscade was hit at about five-thirty in the evening and a little later the Boadicea was heavily engaged while taking some soldiers off the beach.(17) The 51st Division was now cut off from Havre.
A naval operation ‘Cycle’ for the evacuation of the northern base troops had already started and shipping began assembling off the coast early in the morning. The Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth (Admiral Sir William James), arrived at Havre during the afternoon. From what he learnt there it seemed to him unlikely that the 51st Division and the rest of the French IX Corps could ever get to Havre, and he sent a message to the Admiralty and the War Office:
… from reports received of enemy mechanised forces and position of our line it appears highly possible that a large number of troops might have to be evacuated from coast in neighbourhood of St Valery. I have moved small craft flotillas to St Valery so as to be in a good central
position if evacuation takes place from this coast and also transports to be assembled off this coast. I can control transport and small craft flotillas through the S.N.O. on the coast and they can be moved as required or withdrawn if not required.
If General 51st Division will keep me informed of his intentions I will direct the evacuation forces to meet his requirements. Understand present intention is to fight back but if this proves impossible flotillas and transports will be ready on the coast.(18)
By now General Fortune had also come to the conclusion that the main body of the IX Corps would not be able to reach Havre. With General Ihler’s consent he now issued orders for a withdrawal of the 51st Division to St Valery en Caux.(19) Movement began at nightfall, though the line of the Béthune was not abandoned till eleven o’clock that night when the last troops left it without enemy interference.
Two hours earlier General Fortune had sent a message to the War Office: ‘Can I be assured that if I cannot bring my division to Havre I can count on your being able to embark personnel from north coast? Have only two days’ rations …’. Later he reported again that ‘in this rapidly changing situation’ he might ask them to embark as much personnel as possible of his division between St Valery and the mouth of the river Durdent.(20) The French corps commander had joined his headquarters to that of 51st Division. Only a part of one day’s rations remained and no further supplies could be expected from Havre.
When the move towards St Valery with a view to evacuation began, units were ordered to jettison all non-fighting equipment, such as, for example, blankets, in order to free as much transport as possible for troop carrying, and artillery ammunition was reduced to 100 rounds per gun. By these means all men of the division could be carried by the Royal Army Service Corps. The move proved to be a harassing operation. It was very dark; the allotment of toads which had been mad was not adhered to; French transport, much of it horsed, broke from every side road into the route intended to be reserved for the 51st Division and it became choked with a solid mass of slow-moving vehicles. Alarmist rumours that the enemy were approaching added to the anxieties of the night.(21)
There would be little purpose in a detailed description of the moves that took place that night and during the morning of the 11th as the 51st Division and the French divisions drew together a perimeter round St Valery from which it was now hoped to embark. Owing to the confusion on the roads it was broad daylight when the British troops who were to occupy the perimeter reached their positions. Even then French transport continued to come through, so that when contact with the enemy was resumed our men had difficulty at time in distinguishing friend from foe and their fire was
sometimes masked. General Fortune, who was joined later by the French corps commander, stationed himself at the road-junction south-east of Veules les Roses, and from this point staff officers directed the incoming troops to their positions. The situation map shows the position on the night of June the 10th.
Early next morning the War Office sent a message to General Fortune referring to General Weygand’s order of the previous day and reminding him of ‘the importance of acting in strict conformity with any orders IX Corps commander may issue’. To this Fortune answered pointing out the ‘physical impossibility corps commander approach Seine. In same boat as me’,(22) He then assembled his brigade and battalion commanders and gave them orders for evacuation arrangements. His directive was as follows:
The Navy will probably make an effort to take us off by boat, perhaps tonight, perhaps in two nights. I wish all ranks to realise that this can only be achieved by the full cooperation of everyone. Mean may have to walk 5 or 6 miles. The utmost discipline must prevail.
Men will board the boats with equipment and carrying arms. Vehicles will be rendered useless without giving away that this is being done. Carriers should be retained as the final rear-guard. Routes back to the nearest highway should be reconnoitred and officers detailed as guides.
Finally, if the enemy should attack before the whole force is evacuated all ranks must realise that it is up to them to defeat them. He may attacks with tanks and we have quite a number of anti-tank guns behind. If the infantry can stop the enemy’s infantry that is all that is required, while A/Tk guns and rifles inflict casualties on AFVs [Armoured Fighting Vehicles].(23)
In order to cover the actual evacuation an inner perimeter was chosen, to include the cliffs overlooking St Valery harbour from both east and west. As divisional headquarters moved into the town the enemy started to bombard it. The Mairie was ablaze and the Post Office selected for divisional was soon mad untenable. The station square was heavily shelled.(24)
The bombardment heralded the enemy’s opening attack on the western face of the perimeter at about two o’clock in the afternoon. The 2nd Seaforth in St Sylvain and Le Tot areas were attacked by a large force of German tanks. Much of the artillery and many of the anti-tank guns detailed to support them were still held up on the traffic-jammed roads where riderless French cavalry horses galloping aimlessly about added to the confusion. The rifles and 2-inch mortars of the Seaforths were no match for the infantry guns and heavy mortars of the enemy, and anti-tank rifles alone could not stop the weight of armour brought against them.(25) The German tanks broke through near Le Tot and gained the cliffs overlooking St Valery from
the west. A French regiment ordered by General Ohler to hold a sector of the west face of the perimeter had similarly been delayed by traffic congestion and only advanced elements were arriving when the enemy outpaced them for possession of the cliffs. The 201st Anti-Tank Battery joined actively in the battle of the west flank till one by one their guns were all put out of action. Such guns of the 1st Royal Horse Artillery as were able to get into position south of St Valery could not open fire till it was too late to render effective assistance.
A number of small but courageous parties tried to oust the enemy from houses near St Sylvain and Le Tot, but in spite of all efforts the infiltration of St Valery from this quarter was hard to prevent, as the German artillery and machine-guns on the cliff tops maintained a continuous fire on the town and beaches. Small parties of the 1st Kensington and 7th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (both machine-gun battalions) and of the 7th Royal Norfolk (Pioneers) succeeded at last in pushing the enemy back to the wooded outskirts of the town, but the position of St Valery was now very grave.(26) The enemy’s capture of the western cliffs threatened the whole embarkation plan, for the cliffs were within the inner perimeter on which the final stand was intended and some of the planned embarkation points were now under close-range enemy artillery and machine-gun fire—so much that Commander R. F. Elkins, RN, a naval liaison officer, was captured by the enemy on the western pier of the harbour while he was setting up communication with the ships off shore. (He escaped on the line of march through France and reached England safely a fortnight later.)(27)
When the enemy broke through to the cliffs they left a number of tanks to mask the 2nd Seaforth at St Sylvain and Le Tot. Five of these were put out of action by the fire of anti-tank rifles, but casualties in the battalion were heavy. When darkness came the two companies about Le Tot tried to work their way down to the shore, but the Germans had by now a series of posts to prevent coastwise movement and but few of the Highlanders got through.(28) The rest of the battalion remained pinned down at St Sylvain.
On the southern face of the perimeter the 1st Gordons were also attacked by tanks early in the afternoon. They too held their ground with great stubbornness and considerable loss, and a company of the 7th Royal Norfolk, who also refused to budge, suffered heavily when the tanks drove through their posts.(29) Other units on the southern face of the perimeter were unmolested.
Enemy air reconnaissance, followed by dive-bombing, preceded the enemy’s assault on the eastern perimeter in the later afternoon. The 2nd/7th Duke of Wellington’s and 1st Black Watch met the heaviest attacks, but held on grimly though some posts were surrounded.(30) Other battalions were shelled, mortared, and machine-gunned,
but were not directly attacked. By now it was clear that the perimeter could not be held against the numbers and strength of the surrounding forces.
At half past five in the afternoon the War Office sent to the Commander at Havre a report of the 51st Division’s situation as it had been notified earlier in the day, and added: ‘C.in-C. Portsmouth has prepared evacuation but authority for evacuation must be French Admiral Havre …’.(31)
While this message was being sent the Senior Naval Officer at Havre was in fact notifying the Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth that the French Admiral had authorised evacuation that night. Shortly after receipt of this message the Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth signalled to the destroyer Codrington that ‘evacuation from St Valery it to commence this evening. All available transports are being sent’.(32)
About this time 51st Division sent the Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth the following message:
Intend to embark whole force tonight Tuesday providing sufficient ships and boat transport are available. If embarkation cannot be completed tonight propose continuing A.M. tomorrow Wednesday. Estimated numbers British [corrupt group]. French at present 5,000 but may reach 10,000. Consider air superiority is essential to neutralise shore batteries. Jumping-ladders and nets are required to assist embarkation. Time of commencement and beaches to be used will be signalled. Embarkation tonight considered essential owing to probability of attack and shortage of rations petrol and ammunition.(33)
Later that evening General Fortune informed the Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth and the War Office that he considered that night (June the 11th) would offer their last chance of evacuation.
General Fortune had made repeated but unsuccessful efforts to communicate with naval ships off the coast, and General Ihler assumed from this failure that the necessary ships would not arrive; he therefore saw no point in discussing plans for embarkation. General Fortune, on the other hand, believed that after the messages he had sent via Havre the ships would arrive and his troops must be ready to embark at once when they did. At about nine-thirty in the evening he issued the necessary verbal orders. Shortly before he did so, a Frenchman arrived at 51st Division headquarters; he had been captured by the Germans and sent to demand surrendered by ten o’clock under threat of further attack.(35) He was sent back to say that the division had no intention to surrender. The War Diary of the German XV Corps notes: ‘The capitulation of units in St Valery which was already in progress was interrupted by interference of British officers.’1(36)
All the artillerymen and all the infantry who were not surrounded made their way during darkness to the harbour and the beaches. Enemy machine-guns swept over the quays at intervals and the town was subjected to desultory bombardment. Near the sea front, blazing buildings threat a fitful light over the tense scene. A drizzling rain had begun to fall and fog came down over the sea.
So the night passed. The surrounded parties back on the perimeter still held on. The rest of the soldiery waited in St Valery for the ships to take them off.
But no ships came. And by three o’clock in the morning General Fortune realised that with dawn nearing he could not leave his men on exposed beaches or crowded in the centre of the town. Orders were therefore issued for all commanders to rendezvous in the station square so that the defence of a small bridgehead could be organised. This would require the recapture of the western cliffs. His intention was to hold the town and cliffs on either side of it in the hope that his force would be taken off next night. He explained the plan to General Ihler, as the only alternative to surrender. General Ihler though further resistance impracticable and produced a telegram, already draft, so be sent to General Weygand’s headquarters. This stated that it was proposed to surrender, and General Fortune was asked to dispatch it as the French corps commander had no other means of communication with his chief. General Fortune took the telegram, but said he should not forward it till he saw how the final action developed; he should only send it if and when he was satisfied that there was no alternative to surrender.(37)
The strength of the 51st Division was by now greatly reduced. The 154th Brigade with some artillery and engineers and with A Brigade from Beauman Division had been dispatched, it will be remembered, to cover Havre. Of the remainder, three battalions (2nd Seaforth, the majority of the 1st Gordons and about half of the 1st Black Watch) were surrounded in the positions they held on the perimeter and had not been able to fall back to St Valery. All guns, anti-tank guns, tanks and carriers had been rendered useless in preparation for the expected embarkation on the previous night. The only infantry available for the final action were the 4th Camerons and 5th Gordons, the 4th Seaforth and one company of the 1st Black Watch.(38) These were now preparing for an attempt to recapture the cliffs overlooking the harbour and to hold the town for another day. The situation of the French divisions in the perimeter was not clearly known, but it was realised that the enemy was in many places well inside the originally planned line of defence and indeed in some places his tanks could be seen lying ready for orders to close in.
About seven-thirty in the morning (the 12th) General Fortune sent a message to the Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth: ‘51 Division
H.Q. waited all night on beach … Request cooperating ships be instructed to bombard cliffs west of harbour and machine-gun posts east of harbour. Faint possibility of withdrawal on this being accomplished but position very critical’.(39)
Meanwhile the final action had begun. As the 5th Gordons approached the cliffs east of St Valery German tanks were moving in, but French troops carrying white flags marched across the Highlanders’ front masking their fire.(40) The enemy was quick to seize the chance thus created and the Highlanders’ forward companies were quickly surrounded. On the west there was similar difficulty, for 1st Black Watch and the 4th Camerons found their movements hampered by French troops who had capitulated or were about to do so.
At eight-fifteen a white flag fluttered from a steeple near the 51st Division’s headquarters. Orders were given that it should be cut down at once and whoever had hoisted it should be arrested. But the offender proved to be a French officer who said that General Ihler had indeed surrendered. A dispatch rider then arrived with an open message informing all concerned that IX Corps would cease fire at eight o’clock. Then came a personal note for General Fortune:
Le feu cessera à huit heures.
With the message came a request that the surrender telegram be sent to French Headquarters.
There was now no possibility of holding off the enemy till nightfall. Moreover, General Fortune was serving under French orders. Yet at half-past ten he notified the War Office: ‘I have informed corps commander that I cannot comply with his orders until I am satisfied that there is no possibility of evacuating by boat any of my division later.’(42) But all French troops had ceased fire and white flags were being hung out, and in the end, before sending his message, he added a further note: ‘I have now ordered cease fire.’ Half an hour later he received a message from the Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth: ‘Regret fog prevented naval forces arriving earlier off St Valery last night. S.N.O. afloat will make very endeavour to get you off and additional ships are being sent to arrive tonight.(43) When this message was received the cease fire had already been ordered.
It is, of course, impossible to know how many of the 51st Division would have succeeded in getting away if fog had not prevented the ships from closing the shore on that fateful night. But it is very doubtful if any considerable number could have been taken off. Appalling damage to ships and men might have been done by the enemy artillery and machine-guns, which had been posted on the cliffs
flanking the narrow estuary since the early afternoon. The evacuation of several thousand men would in any case have been difficult and dangerous: in fog it was impossible. The Navy had assembled 67 merchant ships off Havre and 140 small vessels and these were standing by, ready for all eventualities. but only 16 out of the 207 vessels were equipped with wireless, and only on a clear night could orders be communicated by visual signals.(44) Fog denied the only method of control. By day the ships had at first lain off the shore, but the enemy’s guns and dive-bombing from the air had made it necessary to move them further out to sea. On a clear night they might have risked a return inshore but on a clear night the effectiveness of the enemy artillery-cover of the harbour and its approaches would have been correspondingly greater. As it was the assembled shipping could not even pass orders to move. A few small parties were taken off the coast but only at Veyles les Roses, four miles away at the eastern extremity of the perimeter, did enough ships get in to embark 2,137 British and 1,184 French troops and 34 seamen and civilians before air bombing sank some of the boats, and the installation by the enemy of guns covering the beaches there made further evacuation impossible.(45) It was indeed only by a brave enterprise that so many were saved.
Arkforce reached its destination, and by half past three on the morning of June the 13th the evacuation of Havre was completed except for a small party of sappers who were taken off during the following night. The Navy had borne 2,222 British troops to England and had carried 8,837 more round the coast to Cherbourg to continue the fight. The operation had again been led by destroyers, and though the Bulldog, Boadicea and Ambuscade had been damaged, no ships had been lost. Meanwhile over 41,000 tons of stores had been moved south by rail to Nantes and St Nazaire.(46)
While these events were reaching their tragic climax fighters of the Advanced Air Striking Force and of Fighter Command made a great effort to cover the movement of the 51st Division and the projected evacuations from Havre. On the 10th of June patrols flown over the 51st Division met no enemy aircraft, but some were fought over Havre where the smoke of burning oil made operations difficult. One vessel, the troop-carrier Bruges, was sunk, but thereafter our fighters prevented enemy interference.(47)
On the 11th, patrols of Fighter Command covered the St Valery for about seven hours. On three occasions they met and fought the enemy, bringing down a number; and on the 12th they made an even greater effort, patrolling the area for eight hours between five o’clock in the morning and half past nine at night, not realising that St Valery had fallen in the morning and that fighting in the area had ceased.(48)
Meanwhile Battles of the Advanced Air Striking Force and Blenheims of Bomber Command were all employed to attack the enemy in the Seine area. Advancing columns, concentrations, bridges and their approaches were heavily bombed by day in agreement with the French Command, and at night both the Battles and the heavy bombers of Bomber Command attacked widely distributed key points in the enemy’s communications, again at the request of the French Command. Among these on the 11th were Laon, La Fère, Soissons, and the Meuse crossings. On the 12th this programme was continued, roads, railways and river crossings again forming the principal targets. By day, bombing attacks were delivered on the enemy’s concentrations and columns and on damaged bridges which were being repaired; new bridges which were being built in the Seine area were also repeatedly attacked, some of these operations being covered by fighters of the Advanced Air Striking Force.(49)
During this final phase our air forces in France had operated under great difficulties. South Component were compelled to abandon in turn three groups of airfields, north of the Seine, south of the Seine, and near Caen. Finally they covered the Cherbourg evacuation from airfields in Jersey. The Advanced Air Striking Force in the same period was compelled to move in turn to airfields in the areas of Le Mans, Saumur and Nantes.(50) To continue bombing action by night and fighting by day under such conditions imposed great strain on all concerned.
Meanwhile on June the 10th Italy had declared war on the Allies. On May the 31st the Supreme War Council had decided that, if Italy declared war, industrial targets and oil plants in northern Italy should then by attacked at the earliest possible moment.(57) With this possibility in view representatives of the Allied Naval and Air Staffs had met and made plans on June the 3rd and the French Air Command put two airfields, conveniently placed to the north of Marseilles, at the disposal of the bombers we were to employ. A special force—oddly named ‘Haddock Force’—was assembled there.
On the night of the 11th, bombers of Bomber Command, flying from England, attacked targets in Turin and Genoa in accordance with the agreed plan. Bombers of Haddock Force were to have joined them, but when the time came General Vuillemin asked that the planned operation should be cancelled. On the 13th General Vuillemin removed his embargo, and in spite of bad weather Haddock Force struck a first blow against Genoa on the night of the 15th and a second against Milan and Genoa on the following evening.(52) By then, as will be seen later, France was seeking an armistice and Haddock Force was ordered to England.