26th May 1940

We start our narrative at 06:00 BST, in a small wood to the south east of St Eloi locally called the “Bois du Faison”. This was right on the First World War front line and bordered the well-known DammeStasse, a sunken road leading up to a big white house in the Palingbeek park, a location that would have been known to the members of the battalion that took part in the last war.

The advance party from 17 Brigade set up a report centre in the western portion of the woods, whilst Brigadier Stopford, Lt Col. Buffey (Commander 91 Field Regt) and Major Hewett (Commander 206 Anti-Tank Battery) went forward to recce the positions to be occupied. The position stretched from the junction of the canal and the railway in the east heading in a north westerly direction until the railway halt for Zillebeke. The gap between this left flank and the Zillebeke lake was to be filled by 150 Brigade when they arrived.

Major Hewett noted that the right flank had natural anti-tank obstacles of the woods, railway line embankment and cutting running out past Hill 60 towards the north west. The bridge over the railway at Hill 60 had collapsed many years earlier making this impassable to vehicles. All four of his guns were emplaced along the road between the farm Vergote and the canal crossing point of the Pitche Menu, where they would be able to cover both the northern and eastern flanks. (see the BHQ map later in the text)

Once Lt Col Buffey had conducted his reconnaissance it was decided that 91 and 18 Field Regiments from the Royal Artillery would set their gun lines along the road between St Eloi and Oosttaverne with their headquarters sited near Wyschaete. They were joined by other regiments that contained both medium and heavy artillery. Lines were laid, and forward observers registered locations for battery fire. One of their forward observers, Major Barff, took up a position in the windmill in Verbrande Molen with the Seaforths, giving him an excellent field of view over the surrounding countryside.

Brigadier Stopford had been ordered to keep one battalion in reserve, so he placed the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the right flank and the Seaforth Highlanders on the left, with the Northamptons in reserve on the Bluff to cover the dispositions in depth.

The 2nd Northamptons had taken considerable casualties during the battle of Arras and could field little over 2 companies.

Alongside the infantrymen, the 17 Brigade also had 2 platoons of Machine Guns from the 1/9th Manchesters, which were to be placed in the upper floors of 3 farmhouses, where they could provide sustained covering fire for any withdrawal from the forward positions, with a further platoon of the Northamptons in reserve

The brigade’s own anti-tank company was to be deployed out to the left flank to provide close support for the Seaforths and cover the railway halt.

141 Field Ambulance under the command of Lt Col G. I. Hankey, were to set up a Casualty Clearing Point (CCP) in the barns around the Vergote farm where they would be fed by the Regimental Aid Posts (RAP) situated forward with the battalions. This CCP would be where the ambulances would collect the wounded and take them off to the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) for triage and evacuation. Finally, the brigade’s B echelon transport and supplies were to be stationed in several farms just west of Voormezele.
Whilst this strategy was being worked out the reporting centre in the woods was attacked from the air by approximately 27 Heinkel bombers, but this didn’t cause any casualties. With the plan firmly in place each of the battalion liaison officers went out to meet their respective battalion commanders in order to guide them into concealed holding locations near the report centre

Between 08.40 and 09.30 each battalion arrived in turn from an exhausting journey from Seclin, that has only partially been supported by motor transport (MT). Taking up temporary positions in the woods and farm houses surrounding St Eloi, the Brigadier gave a detailed set of orders to each of the battalion’s commanders finishing at 11.30. These sets of orders were cascaded down to the company commanders who led their troops down the road towards the canal to occupy the allotted positions. It was about the time that the Royal Scots Fusiliers left their cover in the woods around St Eloi that it started to rain heavily making any travel through the fields left and right of the road awkward.

D Company was to lead off with Captain Vaughan and Lt Livingstone Bussell in front, they made their way past the Vergote farm and the 2 pounder anti-tank guns of 206 Battery setting up in the fields. To their right, they could see a large white house with landscaped gardens and a row of lakes. When they reached the canal the cart track disappeared and was replaced with a footpath that led steeply down the scrub covered cutting.

 

Directly across and to the left from them was a small hill covered in craters, which would have been recognisable to any WW1 veterans as “The Bluff” a spoil heap, created during the digging of the canal. At the base of the cutting the canal was crossed by a small muddy causeway only allowing the passage of soldiers on foot or the Universal carriers.

17 Bde War Diary tracing based on the GSGS4040 map

Lt Livingstone Bussell – 2i/c D Coy

Capt Vaughan – OC D Coy

Sgt Barnes – 16 Plt

Lt Livingstone-Bussell takes up the narrative here in his diary of the 26th May:

The battalion was dispersed in a wood on the right of the road, while Company commanders got their orders from the Colonel. Although we had spent a whole day in Seclin, we had done a certain amount of work reorganizing stores and ammunition, so that no one had a proper rest, thus whenever there was a halt, anyone who wasn't doing anything fell asleep.

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When we moved off to take up our positions, I went with Johnny leading the [D] Company. We came to a small canal which had very steep sides to it, after marching about 2.5 miles and Johnny [Capt. Vaughan] told me to take the Company across and park them in a wood on the far side. When we got into the wood I showed Coy H.Q. where to put themselves, moved back and told 16 Platoon the same.

I then turned around expecting 17 Platoon to come up, but they weren't there. I went back along our route through the woods thinking they might have failed to see 16 Platoon take a right angle turn after we had entered the wood. I met a corporal of B Coy and asked whether they had passed him, but he said "no", so I went back across the canal to Johnny and asked whether the whole Company had passed him. He replied, "oh, funny you should ask that because I thought it was rather short."

This calm reply rather staggered me because I had already been told that we were supposed to be in position by 12.30 and it was not 12.15. We could only suppose that they had failed to see me move off from the wood 2.5 miles back.

 

I took a truck and went back meeting all our transport coming up the narrow lane, so it was a trying drive. When I got to the wood, I found Livingstone had just woken Up and discovered we had moved off He had told Sergeant Barnes of 16 Platoon to tell him when they moved off and he had forgotten. We eventually reached our positions at 1 p.m. and started digging in.

Once across the canal, D company proceeded along the road on the other side until they came to a wood to their right opposite a farmhouse, where the Manchesters were setting up several of their Vickers machine guns. This wood was to be the reserve position that D company would occupy. Lt Livingstone Bussell led each of the platoons into their locations and pointed out their arcs of fire and where the forward elements of battalion HQ would be found.

Each of the other companies then proceeded past this reserve position and onwards into the park (locally called either Vierly or Cavrois park, depending on the narrator) directly to their front. In the Great War, this had been called “Battle Wood” by the British, a marshy woodland that had been replanted with large avenues linking open areas, small ponds and the “Caterpillar Crater”.

On the left flank, were the two platoons of A company led by Lt Wallace with Acting Lt Sinton as his 2i/c, PSM Cruse with 8 platoon and 2Lt Calderwood commanding 9. Their positions were set up around Hill 60, evicting some civilians from the bunker where they were hiding.

2Lt Calderwood – OC 9 Plt

Acting Lt Sinton – A Coy 2i/c

WOIII Cruse – 8 Plt

A Coy HQ set up on the southern side of the railway cutting, where they could see down the rails in either direction. This was commanded by Lt Wallace, due to Major Adamson being wounded at Arras

Looking at the lessons learnt from the last war, the battalion had formed a fighting patrol to deliver an offensive capability during static warfare, for trench raiding and reconnaissance.

The Fighting Patrol, which in reality was 7 platoon was led in May 1940 by 2Lt Cholmondeley a 30-year-old supplementary reserve officer. He was from Australia and spent many years prospecting and mining around the world, making him a tough and resourceful character. This platoon was held back in a wood on the other side of the crater. They were to be prepared to conduct patrols out to the front of the brigade, locating enemy positions and more specifically artillery concentrations that could be passed back to 91 and 18 Field Regiments for counter battery fire.

B Coy Position along the railway with HQ Coy based in the Cavrois park (Battle wood) lodge

The Bunker on Hill60. The damage seen today was caused by the PAK 38(t)

Hill 60 from the scaffold viewing tower in 1937. Looking east towards Klein Zillebeke and Fusilier Wood

A Coy position around Hill 60. Note the Caterpillar crater in the centre

2Lt Bowlby and 2Lt Robertson’s platoons took up the forward positions along the railway whilst 11 platoon under PSM Gregory (previously commanded by 2Lt McDavid until he was wounded and lost his hand at Arras) was held back in reserve.

B Company’s position stretched up to a point where a major track ran through the park and stopped about 25 metres short of the railway embankment. There was a short anti-tank ditch dug by Spanish Civil war labour early in 1940 that prevented this from becoming a weak point against armour.

B Coy Position along the railway with HQ Coy based in the Cavrois park (Battle wood) lodge

 

Behind B Company, the forward elements of HQ Company took up residence in an old house currently occupied by the Cavrois park ranger called Polydore. This house had several large barns around it where the company could cook rations, store spare ammunition and park up the ‘A’ echelon transport.

HQ company was led by Captain Holm and contained almost 200 drivers, cooks, signalers, pioneers, batmen, orderlies, mortarmen, anti-tank riflemen and many more. These men were spread evenly between BHQ in the Vergote farm and here in Battle wood.

Sgt Nimmo – HQ Coy Cook

Capt Heisch – OC B Coy

2Lt Bowlby – OC 12 Plt

C Company occupied the right flank of the battalion and their commanding officer was Captain Ellis, and the 2i/c was Lt Green.

They were also missing one of their platoon commanders, 2Lt Thomson had gone sick earlier when they were in Grammont and had been replaced by PSM (WOIII) Thompson.

 

Thompson and 2Lt Marshall took the forward positions that stretched along the railway until the parkland finished near where the road passed beneath the railway. 14 Platoon was taken over by PSM Thompson with Sgt Simpson. 2Lt Wilmot took the reserve position with 15 platoon to the rear of Coy HQ.

The end of this right flank joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers of the 13 Brigade. They had a major strong point on top of the WW1 German Bunker which gave a commanding view across the railway and onto the slope on the other side. Their position was commanded by Lt Magaw, was on top of the bunker, as it was already full of the local café owner’s family and his stock of beer!

C Coy positions showing the proximity of “Fusilier wood”, the MG of the Inniskillings and the Brigade boundary.

Capt Ellis - OC C Coy

Lt Green – 2i/c C Coy

2Lt Wilmot – OC 15 Plt

2Lt Marshall – OC 13 Plt

WOIII Thompson – 14 Plt

HQ Company along with a good proportion of the Battalion’s wheeled transport took over the buildings in the centre of the park. Here the Administrative platoon set up a temporary forward store for ammunition and a cookhouse in the garages next door.

 

Using their motorbikes, the Motor Transport Officer (MTO) Lt Shakespear and his assistant 2Lt Kempthorne devised a route between this location and the B echelon near Voormezele to secure a ready re-supply of ammunition to the forward companies

The middle of this soon to be battlefield was taken up with a Regimental Aid Post (RAP) run by Lt H.M. Clarke of the Royal Army Medical Corps and staffed by his orderly and the 20 members of the band who in these situations acted as stretcher bearers. This post was set up in one of the long barns behind the farmhouse occupied by the Manchesters.

 

Also, resident in barns around the farmhouse were some of the carriers, these would be used at first as a communications link between BHQ back in the Vergote farm and the forward companies, then as the only vehicle capable of transporting casualties back to the casualty clearing post and ammunition forward.

 

D Coy Position. Note the fighting patrol, the regimental aid post and the MG’s of the Manchesters

In a letter from Lt Dick Shakespear, who was killed in 1943, he describes Lt Thomson pulling an ammunition truck across the canal, after the bridges had been blown.

Further back from there was where D Company were in reserve, in an ideal location to cover any eventual withdrawal back to the canal. The platoons set up with 2Lt Livingstone’s on the left, PSM Gilmour’s on the right and 2Lt McIntosh towards the rear.

2Lt Livingstone – OC 17 Plt

WOIII Gilmour – 18 Plt

2Lt McIntosh was a very young inexperienced officer, not confident in his abilities and incurred the wrath of many of the battalion officers. Whether he was losing kit, misunderstanding orders or in this recorded extract from Lt Livingstone-Bussell’s diary, it is clear that he was out of his depth.

Diary Entry from the 20th May.

Spent the morning reloading the trucks, and after the usual Conference found that we were heading for Arras. We were being picked up by R.A.S.C. transport on the outskirts of the village, so marched out at 6 p.m. Cpl Robertson of 17 Platoon and one other man were absent. The transport was delayed, so we put the Company into a barn to rest. Corporal Flynn and one or two others milked some cows which badly needed it. We went into the farmhouse where McIntosh cooked some scrambled egg very indifferently.

 

Further back across the canal towards St Eloi into the park surrounding the white house, 206 Anti-Tank battery had set their guns either side of the track and Battalion Headquarter (BHQ) for the 2nd battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers was organising itself within the farmhouse of the Vergote farm. In the outbuildings, next to the farm a casualty collection point (CCP) was set up by the padre, Captain Dwyer. The top floor of the white house was taken over by the signals platoon.

 

Their responsibility was to both communicate with Brigade via the local telephone network and the forward companies via runner, flag and signal lamp. They were also required to use their elevated platform to observe the area around them and report back to

Captain Dwyer - Padre

The Vergote Farm in the 1970’s which housed the CCP and Battalion Headquarters.

(Photo courtesy of Johan Feys and Philip Woets

2Lt McIntosh was a very young inexperienced officer, not confident in his abilities and incurred the wrath of many of the battalion officers. Whether he was losing kit, misunderstanding orders or in this recorded extract from Lt Livingstone-Bussell’s diary, it is clear that he was out of his depth.

Diary Entry from the 20th May.

Spent the morning reloading the trucks, and after the usual Conference found that we were heading for Arras. We were being picked up by R.A.S.C. transport on the outskirts of the village, so marched out at 6 p.m. Cpl Robertson of 17 Platoon and one other man were absent. The transport was delayed, so we put the Company into a barn to rest. Corporal Flynn and one or two others milked some cows which badly needed it. We went into the farmhouse where McIntosh cooked some scrambled egg very indifferently.

 

Further back across the canal towards St Eloi into the park surrounding the white house, 206 Anti-Tank battery had set their guns either side of the track and Battalion Headquarter (BHQ) for the 2nd battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers was organising itself within the farmhouse of the Vergote farm. In the outbuildings, next to the farm a casualty collection point (CCP) was set up by the padre, Captain Dwyer. The top floor of the white house was taken over by the signals platoon.

 

Their responsibility was to both communicate with Brigade via the local telephone network and the forward companies via runner, flag and signal lamp. They were also required to use their elevated platform to observe the area around them and report back to BHQ. In this position, they were joined by the forward observation officer from 91 Field Regiment.

2 Pounder Anti-Tank gun (from Major Wilmot’s scrap book)

2nd RSF Battalion Headquarters (BHQ) Note the casualty collection point (CCP) and the guns of the 206 Anti-Tank Battery.

The setting of the guns and the siting of the RSF defences around his house is described in this passage by Jacques Cossart, the son of the owner of the white house.

In 1940, at the ford of "pitch-menu " just under a metre of soil lay the bodies of 50 soldiers of the Great War. The road that so much effort was made to connect still exists on both sides of the canal. On one side, it skirts the northern edge of the park Palingbeek, on the other side it goes straight to the north-western edge of Cavrois Park. For the moment, it serves as a demarcation line between the battalions in Vierly [Battle Wood] and that in Verbrande Molen. It's on this road, on the west bank of the valley, in a small rectangular wood called "Bois du Cran" a dense chestnut copse, which has sprung up since the original trees were shredded 25 years earlier, the Fusiliers dug this morning a whole string of foxholes.

 

This position was excellent, not only enveloped it with its fire the ford of "pitch-menu " but it commanded the approaches dominating the edge of the plateau, on the other side of the slope, towards the park Cavrois.
To further strengthen the defence and prevent any leakage through the bottom of the valley, a machine gun nest was placed at mid-slope, over a hump of ground.

The second ford called "Gue du Palingbeek " is situated 500m further towards the warehouse lock [L’Entrepot] this is where the swamp of the old canal joins the two streams running down from the Palingbeek park. It also bears the scars of the Great War. For four years, the shells fell like hail, knocking down centuries-old oak trees, burning and uprooting their charred stumps, the streams and craters eventually merge and are formed into the ponds seen there today.

 

Paths meander through the backwaters near where young trees head down towards the canal. At the top of these valleys are the Palingbeek hunting lodge and the big white house. All the valleys converging in the same intersection in front of a wide gap that opens between two woods into the canal bed in the middle of horsetails and bushes close to the brook that cascade softly through Palingbeek’s old shell holes. In that clearing at the confluence of two valleys, the Scots [RSF] dug two trenches, the first parallel to the creek, the second parallel canal.

 

Finally, 900 meters further on and 400 meters before reaching the lock of the warehouse, a final ford might possibly be used by the adversary, precisely at the point where the west bank of the valley rises abruptly as to try to equal the level of the promontory of the eastern bank. A single machine gun and trench for its crew seems sufficient to prohibit the passage. At the same place, a small wood

The white house, before it was painted in early 1939. The lake in the foreground, the German assault came from the left.

(Photo courtesy of Golf & country club de Palingbeek)

adjoining the Bois du Hospices, spreads to the foot of the plateau and towards the village of Hollebeke.

While the Scottish battalion set up their defences, a battery of artillery from St. Eligijus [206 anti-tank battery] also arrives in Palingbeek. They stop first at the farm with U-shaped building located in the Horn of Northwest Park. This farm, known as "Vergote" in the characteristic shape of farms in the country, a long building, with stables on the ground floor and granary under the roof, is on the edge of the park, the branches of the U are formed from the farmer's house along the western edge against a privet hedge, the other a hay barn, opening out onto a pasture. The space between these buildings remains open, rolling down an embankment into a thicket of willows in the midst of which meanders the creek that gave its name to the property: the stream of Palingbeek.

The battery is rapidly set up: three guns in the pasture next to farm near the creek, and a fourth, a little further along the road to the ford of "pitch-menu, on the northern edge of the park near an old German bunker from 1914. The four guns are pointed at the road between Hollebeke and Verbrande Molen leading to the park Cavrois [Battle Wood]. They take up a position exactly the same as a French horse battery that came from St Eloi on the 31st of October 1914. Their remains were dug up only last year.

The Cavrois or Vierly park are local names for “Battle Wood” and the Pitche-Menu is a very odd name for the ford of the fallen bridge. It was the nickname of the labourer whose hut collapsed into the canal here before the Great War.

The afternoon of the 26th

As the various units and attachments of 17 Brigade moved into position and started to dig in, many of the bridges over the canal were blown up. This included the severe cratering of the causeway that crossed the canal at L’Entrepot café which severed the forward companies contact with 13 Brigade on the right and critically marooned a good portion of the battalion’s transport in Battle Wood on the other side of the canal.

As the units dug their slit trenches and HQ Company prepared hot food an unfortunate incident occurred and caused the battalion’s first casualty of this action. To range in and ensure the Vickers machine guns of the 1/9th Manchester were balanced they fired some tracer to the north, which fell short and went through the roof of the admin garage wounding Fusilier McNulty as he helped Sergeant Nimmo cook the evening meal.

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At 16:00 BST elements of the German 18th Infantry Division appeared to the front of the Inniskillings and proceeded to cross from right to left, coming into view of the Royal Scots Fusiliers shortly later.

German MG38 machine gun firing from near Klien Zillebeke onto Hill 60. The railway line can be seen running in front of the woods where B and Coys are positioned.

(From the author of Unser Weg Zum Meer 1941)

Contemporary sketch of a mounted German recce officer of the 54th Infantry Regiment, 18th Infantry Division

(From the author of Unser Weg Zum Meer 1941)

These first units were a mixture of motorcycles, horses and armoured cars of the reconnaissance units, then followed by numerous bicycle mounted troops. These were taken under fire by the artillery of all sizes, but the stream of enemy troops didn’t cease.

Shortly after this, troops from the German 54th (Jäger) Infantry regiment set up their support weapons in Klien Zillebeke and made an approach towards the railway through “Fusilier Wood” which gave them cover all the way to the tracks. Others moved into the village of Zwartleen to set up MG34’s, 51mm and 81mm mortars.

 

As the afternoon of the 26th progressed, the Seaforths on the RSF left were put under immense pressure through artillery fire all along their positions in the Verbrande Molen and close quarter infantry fire on the railway line. The windmill has been identified as a British artillery observation post and this attracted considerable attention from both medium and heavy German guns.

Report of Unteroffizier (Sergeant) Sandau, 5th Komp. 54 Inf. Regt. Recknagel

 

In a roundabout way, through dense forests and under bombardment of enemy artillery fire our company moved up into their staging area for an attack on the Ypres Canal. This should be where the Tommies resistance should end. Before us lies the small village Zwartleen.

It was 11:30 when our company moved out of their cover and started the offensive. In the intense enemy fire, especially artillery fire, but also Infantry fire, we reached a group of houses, which lay on the forward slope of a hill on the north western edge of Zwartleen.

 

In this group of houses, we have good cover against the field artillery at least, after taking our positions, we opened fire on the enemy we could see.

We could see everything from here, the ground dipped away and rose again. On the ascending slope was a railway line and on the other side at the top, a street with scattered houses, behind them was a windmill. [Verbrande Molen]

Here the Tommy is dug in. So that was the site for our continued attack on the canal. But where was the canal? No one could see it.

It is still two or three kilometres distant! If the command is to attack, then we must! We are pinned down in the houses.

Our MG and the artillery gunners suppress the enemy with a murderous fire, and we take every opportunity to kill the Tommies.

But Tommy was not idle. No sooner had they recognised that the forward units had taken cover in the houses, then a hail of shells rained down on the houses and their surroundings. Deafening was the noise of exploding English shells.

The Bailllieul Mill in Verbrande Molen rebuilt in 1924 after being destroyed in WW1. Used as an observation post for the British artillery, it was burnt to the ground.

Salvo followed Salvo! The men of the enemy's batteries had to be literally bathed in sweat – firing at this rate! But if they now believed to drive us from our once gained positions, they were vastly mistaken.

 

Our initial orders were to attack the railway line and finally, in the early afternoon, the order came for another objective! This second objective: the windmill up the slope in the village, and finally we needed to reach Ypres Canal.

We can see from our positions, just how devastating our fire had to have hit our opponent.

From the fortified position along the railway line, not a single shot was fired. When we got there, all the Tommies were either so badly wounded that they could no longer fight, had escaped under the cover of the railway line or were dead.

 

One group after another pushed closer to the railway line. Three groups were in the front line. Meyer’s group in which I was a Gruppenführer [second in command] was pushed out to the left and should secure the left flank of the railway, as we had still no connection with the left neighbouring unit.

A little out of breath but still full of excitement we now lay in the tall grass in front of the railway line. An enemy gunner fired constantly on our left flank but didn’t cause too much trouble.

Then - a roar and whistle - then the explosion after explosion! Our "Arty" wants to prepare for our attack. It is wonderful to hear her shooting again and this reassures us greatly.

The bombardment was over, and we approach the railway and in one leap, we were on the track. Unteroffizier [Sergeant] Meyer and his group push out to the left and we come across the open field. Everywhere lay dead and wounded Englishman [Seaforth Highlanders]

Just after 16:00 BST a call came through from the General Staff Officer for Intelligence stating that the gap that was supposed to be filled on the left of the Seaforths by 143 Brigade was still there and would 17 Brigade deploy 2 companies from the Northamptons under Major Wetherall to fill it. This gap around Zillebeke and the lake was also supposed to have a unit from the French Division Légère Mécanique (DLM) in place to conduct any counter attacks if required. When the Northamptons arrived the DLM were already pulling back to Ypres and by 18:00 BST they were on their own.

A report by of Oberleutenant (Lieutenant) Zahn, 10th Komp. 30 Inf. Regt. indicates that this happened suddenly without contact, but they left two tanks behind to cover the withdrawal.

 

I was thinking “Good God” avoid this lot, keep calm and get to the houses in Zillebeke. It was too late, the advance troops had not noticed the hustle and bustle to the left of us, as they are shooting at a group of Englishmen who are running across the fields in front of us.

Subsequently a wide panic erupts on the wooded hill, 4 fast moving tanks and 25 motor vehicles, followed by 25 tanks follow them away.

 

The Enemy is missing an opportunity and does not know how weak we are or know we would be brushed to the side of the road if he attacks with those tanks now.

We quickly move forward again, but it is not as quick as we would like. They have left some of the tanks behind and they now prevent us from advancing further.

Royal Artillery 6” gun Mk XIX

Royal Artillery 8” howitzer

 

Considerable praise has been levelled on the Royal Artillery for their professional ability during this campaign and the Brigadier was reassured when a liaison officer from 1 Heavy Regiment RA called at Brigade HQ to discuss counter battery and harassment taskings. This would call down fire from both 8” howitzers and 6” guns onto locations identified by the forward battalions as likely forming up points for infantry and support weapon platforms.

This combination of rushing the Northamptons into position and the supporting artillery fire is described by Oberleutenant (Lieutenant) Zahn:

Now the machines guns are firing along the road.

The English now take cover behind the houses, we can only move forward in the ditches or hoping from house to house, eventually coming to the train tracks near the last houses of Zillebeke.

There in front of us, a road full of English, the guys that took cover from the houses, have crept into a position that they can fire at us from all sides. Everything is going wrong.

 

Then, there is a counter fire Belgian and English machine guns and artillery coming over their heads. This is where the enemy has taken their positions all around us. It is starting to get dark and we are in a very uncomfortable position. 2 companies with heavy losses are taking cover near the railway crossing but have nowhere to go. They are in cover to the right and a few kilometres back are the neighbouring battalion and we are the tip of the wedge of the division.

This night no one sleeps, flares deliver a ghostly light and every now and then a machine gun fires. Other than that, it’s quiet. Everyone is listening and staring in the nightly darkness until their eyes hurt.

 

The first British recce troops use the darkness to get to the crossing without being noticed. As soon as they are seen, they throw hand grenades over the rail embankment and disappear.

Even this night with its constant listening and staring is over in the end.

Slowly it gets brighter and lighter, and with that the MG and artillery fire becomes heavier, the enemy sits in excellent positions which are well concealed. You have to look very closely to see where the fire is coming from.

The sweeping fire from the MG covers our position and somewhere over there is a sniper, those guys are scarily accurate. They shot away our periscope! As soon we try to move forward, the opportunity disappears as they cover it. I recognise an English mortar position because after every time it fires you can see the dust and smoke from above the barn roof.

After the third shot we locate him and neutralise his fire.

Now the heavy calibre artillery comes in, the impact is felt through our bones, the whistle and noise are terrible.

In a house by the rail embankment they are quietly getting themselves ready to advance from the right.

There are [French] tanks coming from Ypres, firing and constantly changes places, flanking our position on the embankment. Suddenly from the manor farm, 200 metres to our front. 3 tanks come forward onto the road, rolling towards us.

We load up the special anti-tank ammunition and at 100 metres we open fire. They don’t dare advance any further, they turn away and retreat with smoke coming from them, we think they are hit.

Close to the right, we see a company of camouflaged English troops, who were hidden in a ditch and were not detected before. We open fire with all our machines guns and artillery. There is little chance of escape as we kill or wound them all. Eventually when we move forward, we find their dead bodies and none of the prisoners we took are unwounded.

We can’t see anything to our left or right, but the artillery fire becomes heavier, so much so you can’t hear your own voice and can feel the ground shaking. Splinters, stones and clay lumps flying everywhere. Massive fountains of sand and wall of fog caused by the smoke and dust engulfs us all.

This heavy fire from the 6” and 8” guns, coupled with the quick firing accuracy of the 25 pounders of 18 and 91 field regiments proved to be a formidable combination of supporting fire, able to prevent large bodies of troops forming up for attacks and suppress the German’s own artillery.

By this time, it was clear that the German forces had occupied positions opposite the Brigade and were bringing heavier weapons in to support an imminent attack. To identify targets for their artillery, isolate forward units and attempt to disrupt supplies they deployed tactics developed in Spain and Poland. This was to infiltrate small sections of infantry armed with both K98 rifle and MP38 submachine guns. Their mission was to locate gaps in the British defences and work their way around behind them, making the enemy soldiers who come under their fire from all directions think that the units to their left and right had withdrawn, which in turn led to confusion and unnecessary retreats.

The Seaforths reported sniping from the lightly wooded area to their rear at 19:30 and a half an hour later a large body of troops was spotted passing from right to left across the Fusiliers’ front. These were the 3rd, 4th and 5th Battalions from the 54th Infantry Regiment heading towards their line of departure ready to attack between Zwartleen and Zillebeke lake. When the assault took place, the 5th would be the first followed in by the 4th and finally the 3rd.

On the right of IR 54 towards the railway halt covered by the 17 Brigades anti-tank company, another regiment, IR 30 had already started moving forward under cover of the tall crops. When they reached the railway halt itself, some 200 yards in front of one of the 17 Brigade anti-tank gun positions they quickly established that the infantry screen was practically non-existent, taking the initiative, they engaged the gun position, killing its commander Sgt Sutherland as he tried to bring his gun into action.

The German unit involved here was the 10th Battalion of IR 30. Their main effort fell on the Northamptons while they were trying to hand off their temporary positions to the Green Howards. The resulting confusion caused many casualties amongst the British forces and put a strong enemy presence on the left flank of the 6th Seaforth Highlanders. This culminated in the loss of one of the platoons from C company of the Seaforths, commanded by 2Lt Muir which disappeared and was only later discovered to have been taken prisoner, when they thought they were being relieved in the dark.

With enemy troops to their flank and rear, as well as heavy artillery bombardment and constant machine gun fire, the Seaforth Highlanders began to fall back from the railway line and into the houses at Verbrande Molen.

Members of Oberleutenant Zahn’s unit taking shelter before the attack.

 (From the author of Unser Weg Zum Meer 1941)

As this was going on 2 patrols were being organised by the Fusiliers. The fighting patrol under 2Lt Cholmondeley was tasked with gathering information on potential artillery positions and troop concentrations, whilst B Company under the command of 2Lt Robertson made up of members of 10 platoon were tasked with intelligence gathering immediately to the battalion’s front.

2Lt Cholmondeley – OC Fighting Patrol

2Lt Robertson – OC 10 Plt

Prior to the war, Richard Vernon Cholmondeley had been a mining engineer with concessions in South America but had most recently worked in Australia as private secretary to Sir Leslie Wilson. This background meant that he was not only a natural leader of men, but also someone who was very comfortable in the field with the fighting patrol. At 31 years of age he was a physically fit and capable pair of hands, to carry out this task.

The fighting patrol drew mainly on the members of A company where it replaced 7 platoon. These men were the fittest, most aggressive and skilled in fieldcraft, making them a real asset to the battalion.

They had been stationed further back from the forward positions, so that they could be better rested to carry out their duties and at 20:45 2Lt Cholmondeley and 14 men crossed the steep embankment of the railway through A Coy’s positions and made their way through the back gardens of the houses in Zwartleen. Crossing the main road as the light started to fade (it had been raining hard all evening) they moved along either side of a wide track through the woods heading north east, towards Hill 62 and the Canadian memorial.

The infantry of the 54 IR had pulled back at 20:00 BST due to heavy shelling from the 25 pounders allowing the patrol to pass through without incident.

Whilst they were moving through the tree’s they could hear horse and vehicle noises. These were the German artillery of the 18th Infantry Division moving into position with two batteries of guns. 7th Battery with their 10.5cm horse drawn light field howitzers and 2nd Battery with the larger 15cm model 18 heavy field howitzers.

As they moved further through the woods they reported seeing red flares to the south and west which indicated that the German infantry had moved back in behind them and had contacted the forward companies. Before breaking from the wood, they had to wait for the light to fade further because the rain had stopped allowing a small amount of moon to shine through.

By midnight the fighting patrol was close enough to Hill 62 that they could see artillery being set up there also. As they returned through the wood, they surprised 2 German soldiers. Killing one (Gunner Hans Lautenschlager) and taking the other prisoner. This proved crucial for the success of the patrol, as 2Lt Cholmondeley had learnt German whilst mining in South America and could confirm the locations of the 18th Divisional artillery to pass back onto the battalion intelligence officer 2Lt Maitland Makgill Crichton.

The patrol finally made their way back down through Fusilier wood, contacting C Company at about 1:20 before returning to their positions in the small woods between the road and the crater.

 

Whilst they were on the patrol those remaining behind came under sporadic artillery and machine gun fire. During one such attack LCpl Barnes, one of the section commanders was killed, which led to the section withdrawing without orders. Luckily for the RSF they had men such as Fusilier L. Murphey who took command of the section and personally repositioned each of the men and made sure that they were ok for the remaining hours of darkness. During the next day, he again proved his worth and in doing so gained a citation for a military medal.

No. 3126151 Fusilier L. Murphey, 2nd Bn The Royal Scots Fusiliers is recommended for the award of the military medal.

“On the night of the 26th May 1940 the commander of Fusilier Murphey’s section was missing, and the section had withdrawn. He took charge of the section and at grave danger to himself took each individual back to his post and kept visiting them during the night to ensure that all was correct.

On the morning of the 27th, May 1940 the Company Commander visited the section occupied by No. 7 Platoon, which was under very heavy machine gun and mortar fire and asked for a volunteer to take a message back to Battalion Headquarters. Fusilier Murphey volunteered and delivered the message safely after running the gauntlet of heavy machine gun fire. He showed marked coolness and courage in the face of very heavy enemy fire”.

This message was about the encirclement of the forward companies, the withdrawal of the Seaforths on the flank and the penetration of the woods by the Germans.

Another patrol sent out by 10 platoon from B company had a much different story. After setting out an hour later, they became trapped by the return of the German Infantry in Zwartleen and were forced to surrender. This outcome remained a mystery until after the war.

When 2Lt Robertson failed to return, Sgt P Carr took over and distinguished himself:

No.3128552 Sgt P. Carr, 2nd Bn The Royal Scots Fusiliers is recommended for the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

“On the night 26/27th, May 1940 the platoon officer was missing, and Sgt Carr took charge of the Platoon. He showed great courage and was very cool under enemy fire from sniper, machine gun and mortars. He continually visited section posts and kept the men very cheery.

3127993 Fusilier Strain

On the night of the 26th, May 1940 it was reported that No. 3127993 Fusilier Strain was wounded and that no one could get out to him. This NCO crawled under heavy fire and brought back Fus Strain, who was very badly wounded, he went forward and brought back the gun which had been used by Fus Strain.

On the morning of the 27th May 1940 when the order was given to withdraw Sgt Carr again went forward again and brought back more wounded. He reorganised his platoon and took up another position on the railway in the rear of Hill 60.”