17th Bde war diary
During the morning Brig visited all units in the area; troops were occupied in cleaning up, bathing etc. There were two bombing raids in the vicinity, but no damage caused as Brigade H.Q. Official correspondence etc was attended to at Bde. H.Q. Office.
L.O. from 5 div H.Q. called Brigade H.Q. to summon Brig to conference at Div H.Q.
Message received from Brig asking B.M. to call conference of commanders at 1500hrs.
Brig returned from 5Div H.Q. and explained to commanders that the Brigade was to move to an area south of Ypres to hold a position there to facilitate the withdrawal of the B.E.F. towards the coast. Troop carrying transport was being provided and the unit guides would report to Seclin at 21:30hrs that evening.
Bde H.Q. and units prepared for the move. At 22:00hrs there was no sign of transport at Seclin, and everything was held up till 00:30hrs on the 26th of May, when the Brig sent out units to tell them to start marching.
The pt-carrying transport turned up later and picked up some of the Battalions which has already begun the march.
As H.Q. 5 Div had already left the Lille area it was impossible to get in touch to tell them of the delay in moving off. Brig and S.M. left Templemars for St. Eloi 20 miles away, via Lille and Armentieres. Brigade H.Q. followed with the M.T. column. There was great congestion on the route and progress was very slow with the result that units were still moving through Lille in daylight. German recce and bombing aircraft very active from dawn onwards but there were very few bombing attacks on the column.
Advance Brigade H.Q. arrived in St. Eloi (south of Ypres) and established a report centre. The Brig, accompanied by Lt. Col. Buffey, commander 91 field Rgt. And commander 206 Antitank Bty, went off at once to carry out a recce of the position to be occupied by the Brigade south of Ypres. This position was about 3,500 yards in length and extended along the line of the Comines-Ypres railway from the canal bend just East of Hollebeke to excl Zillebeke. The railway in the right half formed a fair tank obstacle, but there was no good tank obstacle on the left. C.O.C. had ordered brig to keep one Bn in reserve. The dispositions decided upon by the Brig, therefore were as follows:
2RSF on right, with under command four guns of 206 Antitank Bty.
6 Seaforths on left with the five surviving guns of the Brigade Antitank Coy under command.
2 Northamptons in reserve on the line of the Ypres-Comines canal, with the remaining five guns of 206 Antitank bty under command.
Two platoons of A coy 9 Manchesters in support of F.D.L.s with one platoon in support of the reserve position.
Arty support was provided by 18 and 91 Field regt’s with some med arty and one Heavy arty regt.
B echelon transport arrived in the are and was sent to a farm west of Voormezele.
27 enemy bombers attacked the area but did no damage to Brigade H.Q.
The three Bns, AntiTank coy and 141 field Ambulance arrived in the area in troop carrying transport and their own M.T.
6 Seaforths had been slightly bombed in their M.T. but had suffered no damage. Commanders reported at advance Brigade H.Q. as their units arrived and were given verbal orders by Brig individually so that troops might be got out on the ground without loss of time as soon as they had had a meal. Verbal orders given to all commanders by 11:30hrs, but it was not until 16:00hrs that the last Bn (2RSF) reported they were in position.
Bde H.Q. established amongst some bushes in a shallow cutting about a mile East of St Eloi. Neighbouring farms were too conspicuous as they were under direct observation from the enemy. Brigade H.Q. transport was hidden in farms and woods 300-500yds away. Communication with 5 Div established by L/T at 12:30hrs.
Fairly heavy rain began and continued during most of the afternoon and evening.
The bridges over the Ypres-Comines canal were blown with the exception of the most important one on the St. Eloi – Ypres road which was left intact in order to allow for movement between Ypres and to enable us to keep in touch with the Brigade on our left. Unfortunately the bridge over the canal on the right of 17 Brigade was also blown thereby preventing direct road communication with 13 Brigade on the right. A Belgian formation was supposed to have been on the left of 17 Brigade but did not materialise.
Information was received that 150 Brigade was to take it’s place. During the afternoon Brig went round to visit all Battalions and to co-ordinate final details of arty and M.G. tasks as well as patrolling during the night.
Some Belgian details reported enemy to be in the woods at 6258 and 6859 opposite 2RSF sub-sector and Zandevoorde.
Telephone message from G.S.G.I. to say that there was a gap between left of 6 Seaforths and 150 Bde. In the absence of the Brig, B.M. gave orders to Major R.M.G. Wetherall, commanding 2 Northamptons, that his Bn was to fill this gap. It was necessary to employ two companies for this purpose.
2RSF reported that they were in touch with 2 Inniskillings (13 Bde) on their right and with the 6 Seaforths on their left.
A L.O. from a french D.L.M. reported to the Brig. He stated that his formation was holding Zillebeke just in front of the left flank of 6 Seaforths and it was prepared to counter attack if the enemy advanced. Brig explained the layout of 17 Brigade and then went fwd with this L.O. to see the French div command whose H.Q. was in Zillebeke. On arrival there he found that the H.Q. had disappeared and that the last of the french tanks was withdrawing on Ypres.
A L.O. from 1 Heavy Regt. (8” Howitzers and 6” guns) called at Brigade H.Q. and discussed with Brig, C.P. and harassing tasks for the night.
Arty of both sides become active
Reports from forward Battalions stated that no enemy activity was observed on either flank.
Message received from 6 Seaforths passing information from a french officer that enemy troops and guns were in Zandevoorde.
2RSF reported that about 50 enemy had been seen at Zwartelen moving N.W. Rifle and M.G. fire also heard on their right front. Arty accordingly put down harassing fire.
2RSF sent out patrols through out the night. Particularly good work was done by Lt. Cholmondely who was later killed. This patrol took one prisoner. Patrols reported small numbers of enemy in woods opposite 2RSF and enemy field guns in action S.E. of Ypres.
Information passed on to 91 field Regiment who put down harassing fire at intervals during the night. Owing to low clouds and rain, enemy air activity was restricted during the afternoon and evening.
27th May 04:00-06:30hrs
Enemy and own arty active. A number of enemy bombing attacks on Brigade area.
M.G. fire heard on our left
Four enemy aircraft (recce) flew over Brigade H.Q.
M.G. fire from A coy, 9 Manchesters on left reported to be falling in Northamptons line.
2RSF reported enemy sniping from wood on their right, and enemy snipers and mortars active at Zwarteleen. 91Fd Regiment informed and fire brought down on these places.
Capt.Goldie, O.C. Brigade Antitank Coy visited Brigade H.Q. to report that 6 Seaforths has retired from their left forward defensive line on the railway, leaving one of his Antitank guns unguarded.
Bde I.O. immediately left for H.Q. Seaforths to make enquires and to take Brig’s order that the line was to be re-established at once. On arrival at Seaforths H.Q. he discovered that the left Coy (C) was retreating under enemy pressure and that approx 2 Coys of enemy had taken line of railway from Halt extending 300 yards S.E. Plans were made for B Coy (res) to retake line. Arty support arranged. This counter attack never got back to the line of the railway owing to heavy enemy mortar fire. Commander of C Coy 6 Seaforths (Capt. Falkiner) had not reported his withdrawal to Bn H.Q.
Bde I.O returned to Brigade H.Q and reported situation to Brig.
Enemy shelling of Hollebeke road reported by 2 RSF
Enemy aircraft carried out bombing raid in vicinity of Brigade H.Q. no casualties.
Arty L.O. reported that Zwarteleen was occupied by enemy infantry with M.G.s and Mortars; these were being engaged.
Enemy shelled the road St. Eloi – Nutyen farm.
Heavy artillery activity by both sides on whole front.
6 Seaforths reported heavy shelling of forward defensive line. Information passed to own arty who put down counter battery fire.
Bde I.O went forward to observe effects of own shelling.
Arty O.P. reported enemy in Hollebeke and that the 2 Inniskillings on the right of 2RSF were retiring. This was confirmed by personal telephone message from commander 2RSF (Lt.Col. Tod)
In view of the retirement and also following a report given by the Seaforth’s L.O. that enemy infantry were advancing on the left of the RSF, the Brig decided to withdraw back to the line of the canal in the face of heavy pressure (actually 6 Seaforths were almost all back on the line of the canal at this time) Orders to this effect were given to L.O.s to take to their Bn commanders. Brigade I.O. was dispatched to 13 Brigade to explain situation to Brig. Dempsey who adjusted his line to conform with the new situation. 5 Div and 150 Brigade also informed.
Heavy enemy shelling and mortar fire was taking place at this time, and all units of both 13 and 17 Bde’s retired too far and had to be re-formed and sent back to the new line under heavy Arty fire. The line was established however by 14:45hrs, when the Brigade H.Q. was set up in conjunction with H.Q. 13 Brigade and R.H.Q of the 91 field regiment, north of Wytschaete. The Battalions of the Brigade were now holding the line of the Ypres-Comines canal, with 2 RSF on the right, 2 Northamptons left and 6 Seaforths in reserve south of the canal. Brig and S.C visited Battalions during the afternoon and found the RSF in the process of getting in touch with units of 13 Brigade on their right near Hollebeke. The Bn had been skilfully extricated during the morning but had had to leave most of it’s transport north of the Canal owing to the lack of bridges.
At about 20:00hrs on 27th May, Brig. Barker, commander of 10 Brigade arrived at Brigade H.Q. to say that his Brigade had been ordered up to help to restore the situation. He proposed to push his carriers on to the Ypres-Warneton road at once in order to carry out a counter-attack in the morning. After discussing plans with the Brig and Brig. Dempsey he said that he would return later the same night to arrange details for tomorrows counter attack. He did not re-appear until the morning of the 28th and the counter attack did not develop until the afternoon of that day.
L.O. called Brigade H.Q. to say that 6 Seaforths were retiring from their reserve line having been outflanked by enemy infantry and were coming under M.G. fire from their left. B.M and Brigade I.O. went to discover what the situation was, and gave orders from the Brig to all officers and N.C.O.s whom they met that the original positions were to be occupied forthwith.
All personnel of the Brigade H.Q. under S.O. were manning positions for the defence of Brigade H.Q. as the enemy was only a few hundred yards off. Forward defensive lines being subjected to heavy enemy shelling and mortar fire. By 23:00hrs the line was re-established on the road St-Eloi - Warneton.
Weather – Fine and sunny all day!
Farm north of Wyschaete
28th May 00:15hrs
Brig and Brigade I.O. left Brigade H.Q. to visit battalions and to impress the C.O.’s that there must be no withdrawal from the positions now held as Brig had been informed by G.O.C that 5 Div MUST hang on in order to protect the northern flank of the remainder of the B.E.F. which was beginning a withdrawal to the coast.
Brig first visited 6 Seaforths who had their Bn H.Q. in the northern outskirts of St. Eloi. Reid and Neill, adjt, both appeared to be somewhat shaken. Brig gave verbal orders regarding reorganising and holding the reserve position.
2 Northamptons were next visited. Bn. H.Q. in a farm a short distance S.E. of St. Eloi on the St. Eloi – Warneton road. Maj R.M.J Wetherall, who was in command, appeared to have a good grasp of the situation and was unruffled. Brig discussed the arrangements to be made for sending out patrols across the Ypres-Comines canal which was now the forward defensive line. Capt. Heisch and some stragglers from 2RSF were at H.Q. 2 Northamptons and the Brig gave orders for them to rejoin their Bn, explaining the route which they were to move.
Brig and Brigade I.O. then went on to 2RSF whose Bn H.Q. had been moved since the afternoon and was now in small isolated farmhouse near the original Brigade H.Q. Lt. Col. Tod, Maj. Morrison and Capt. Arkwright were awake and in good heart, but very tired. Capt. Thomson, commander of the carrier platoon and Lt. Knight Sigs Officer were also at Bn H.Q. but were asleep. Lt. Col. Tod assured the brig that the Bn would not retire whatever happened, and plans were discussed for sending out strong patrols to clear up the situation in certain localities which had been lost during the day.
Brig left 2 RSF to return to Brigade H.Q. via St. Eloi. During this tour all Bn commanders had been told of the necessity for holding on to their positions.
Enemy resumed attack under heavy shelling, small arms and mortar fire. Reports received that he had broken through between 2RSF and 13 Brigade and were approaching Brigade H.Q. All personnel of Brigade H.Q. turned out to man their battle positions, but the enemy did not actually arrive.
Elements of D.C.L.I (10 Bde) began to appear in 17 Brigade area. No notification of their arrival had been given and in some cases, troops thought they were being relieved and began to fall back.
Brig and Brigade I.O. collected several dozen stragglers of all Battalions on the St. Eloi – Wytschaete road and sent them back to their units.
Owing to the proximity of the enemy Brigade H.Q. and HQ of 13 Brigade moved to an estaminet in Wytschaete. Regiment HQ 91 field Regiment had moved shortly before on receipt of orders from C.R.A. this combined H.Q. during the two days fighting proved to be invaluable as it enabled all plans and movements to be co-ordinated and information interchanged without delay.
Brig. Barker, 10 Brigade came to Brigade H.Q. to say that the line had been reinforced and secured by his Brigade in the neighbourhood of St. Eloi. About this time, communications with Battalions broke down altogether and contact could only be maintained with L.O. NcNeill Cooke (L.O. 2 RSF) made repeated efforts to get through to H.Q. 2RSF in a carrier with Sgt. Thomson, the carrier platoon sgt, but was unable to do so owing to enemy fire; their carrier was hit repeatedly and they had to return to Brigade H.Q.
Brig and Brigade I.O. went out from Brigade H.Q. to try to locate Brigade Antitank Coy, all of whose guns had been knocked out, which had been sent to occupy a reserve position as a rifle coy on the left flank to stop enemy infiltration which was reported from several sources to be taking place west of the St. Eloi – Wyschaete road. The coy could not be found as it afterwards transpired that it had taken up a position further to the west that the Brig had intended. A party of about 25 stragglers of the 2 Northamptons and 6 Seaforths with two officers, Maj. D Smith, 6 Seaforths and 2/Lt. Reddy (slightly wounded) 2 Northamptons, was however encountered at about 10:15hrs moving back towards Wyschaete. Brig collected these and gave orders to Maj. Smith to take command of the party; he was to redistribute their arms and ammunition and then take them to a farm a few hundred yards away, where British troops could be seen to get more ammunition. After this the party was to occupy a position on a hill which was pointed out 600 yards further on whence it could cover the St. Eloi – Wyschaete road until further orders were received.
Contact was then made with some machine gunners of 4 div which were also covering the approaches to Wyschaete. Heavy small arms and M.G. fire heard to the east.
Maj. Watts, Capt Houchin and 2/Lt Roche, 2 Northamptons, arrived at Brigade H.Q. with 20 men of the 2 Northamptons. This was all that could be collected of the Bn, the remainder having either become casualties or stragglers.
Brig and Brigade I.O. returned to Brigade H.Q. where Lt. Col. Reid and Maj. Neill, 6 Seaforths had arrived shortly before. Brig ordered Lt.Col. Reid to collect all available stragglers including Maj. Smith’s party and remnants of the 2 Northamptons and take up a position on the St. Eloi road about .75 of a mile north of Wyschaete, facing east. From here they could support 13 Brigade and possibly get in touch with 10 Brigade which was believed to be moving round the outer (N.W.) flank of the remnants of 17 Bde.
Heavy shelling and bombing of Wytschaete and Grand Bois, a few hundred yards in front of Brigade H.Q. all the morning.
B.M. summoned to Div H.Q. at Ploegsteert to receive orders fro the future movements of the Bde.
Enemy attacks slowed down during the afternoon which was fortunate as 17 Brigade had become very weak and only about 70 men of the three battalions could be collected under the few officers who had not become casualties
Capt. Makin, Commander A coy 9 Manchesters, reported his M.G.s in position at cross roads 586545, the Inniskillings of 13 Brigade being in front of him on the road St. Eloi – Nuyten Farm. He was not in contact with enemy or with our own troops on his flanks.
Capt. Butterfield, L.O. from 5 Div, arrived at Brigade H.Q. with orders that the Div was to withdraw N.W. tonight, clearing the Wyschaete area by 21:30hrs; troops were to be carried in unit M.T; unnecessary baggage was to be dumped so as to make room for personnel; kits, etc thrown away were not to be brunt in order to avoid lighting up the countryside fro hostile aircraft during the night.
The necessary orders were issued verbally to commands 2 Northamptons (Maj. Watts), 6 Seaforths (Lt. Col. Reid), Antitank Coy (Capt. Goldie), A coy 9 Manchester (Capt. Maken), and 207 Antitank Bty (Major Birt). Capt. McNeil Cooke had taken charge of such stragglers of the 2RSF as had been collected. Brigade I.O. sent to give orders to Brigade T.O with B echelon transport at La Clytte and to organise small dumps of petrol to be placed along the road to starting point so that vehicles could fill up as they went past.
Brig and B.M. went down to starting point to see the column moving off. Many fires burning, but with enemy shelling slackening.
Bde H.Q. closed at Wyschaete and the whole column was on the move by this hour.
Night 28/29th May
Route for the column lay through Poperinghe – Hoogestade – Drieridders; about 25 miles. Roads were very congested and Poperingue being shelled at regular intervals. Enemy aircraft active dropping flares and occasional bombs.
29th May 05:00hrs
Bde H.Q. opened Drie Ridders having taken 7.5 hrs to cover 25miles during the night owing to congested roads.
Enemy recce aircraft over the area.
Div commander and G.L arrived at Brigade H.Q. and issued verbal orders for the day. As a result of these Brig issued a warning order and carried out a quick recce.
Commanders reported at Brigade H.Q. for Brig’s orders. The Brigade supported by a field Regt, was to hold a position on the Yser canal on a front of about 3000yrds from excl bridge at Staveele – Excl road Furnes/Ypres. Major Watts, 2 Northamptons was to command the fwd troops consisting of the remnants of 2RSF, 2 Northamptons, all the carriers which could be mustered (6), the remaining guns from 207 Antitank Bty and the three platoons of Manchesters (M.G.) actually only 6 guns of 9 Manchesters arrived. 6 Seaforths, which now numbered about 200 men were to be in Brigade reserve in Drie Ridders.
Having issued orders Brig took Major Watts, 2/Lt. Roche, who was to command the carriers, and a R.A officer to recce the position. The M.G. officer did not arrive till later. The position was to be held by a series of localities covering likely crossing places over the canal, but these localities had to be dispersed that it would be almost impossible to stop a determined attack. 13 Brigade was on the left of 17 Bde. All troops in position by about 14:00hrs having marched out from their billets.
Much congestion of civilian and military traffic, including several thousand French and Belgian troops, round Drie ridders during the day. Several air attacks on the village and a number of fires started. Enemy began to shell the village at long range during the afternoon, but no attack developed.
Brig reported to Div H.Q. for orders and was told that 5 Div, plus 143 Brigade was to hold it’s present position until 04:30hrs, 30 May. To allow 3 and 50 Divs to withdraw through the North and South flanks, respectively of the Div front. At 14:30hrs 13 and 17Bdes were ordered to withdraw covered by their own rearguards to an area S.E. of Dunkirk where a bridgehead, protected by the Frunes – Bergues- Dunkirk canal was being formed. Troops were to move in A echelon vehicles the majority of which, on arrival at the entrance to the bridgehead at Houthem, were to be driven into fields and damaged whilst troops marched on to assembly areas.
Brig has great difficulty in getting back to Brigade H.Q. owing to congestion on roads and it was not until 20:45hrs that he arrived to give orders to commanders of units who had already been called in. The outline plan was that 141 field Ambulance should withdraw first, followed by 6 Seaforths, Brigade H.Q., Antitank Coy, 207 Antitank Bty, M.G. Coy and finally the rear party consisting of 2RSF and 2 Northamptons under Major Watts. S.C. sent off at once to select assembly areas.
Bde I.O. 13 Brigade arrived at Brigade H.Q. to ask for immediate support by carriers as heavy enemy pressure was developing against left of 13 Bde, on the Furnes canal near Loo.
No carriers could be spared at this juncture owing to very few being left, but two platoons of 6 Seaforths were sent off in trucks.
Weather – A hot, sunny day!
30th May 03:30hrs
The withdrawal of Brigade Group began in accordance with the plan already decided on. Owing to a mistake in traffic direction by one of the C.M.P. leading units took the wrong road out of Drie Ridders but eventually got back on the right road.
Brig and B.M., who had remained in Drie Ridders, received report that the rearguard, under command of Major Watts, had begun it’s withdrawal from Yser canal without molestation. They then proceeded to the Brigade assembly area at Moeres near the coast.
Head of the column reached the bridge of the canal near Houthem. Troops then debussed, vehicles were driven off into adjoining fields and damaged.