Diary of Lt. Kempthorne
The Jocks, had never been so well looked after in their lives, and once they had learned to cope with the local Vino and a smattering of the French Language, they all seemed very happy. There was little crime by Army standards, and the French people, made them very welcome in their homes. As far as we were concerned, the City of Lille, was only 15 miles away, and by sharing the cost of a taxi, we could have a very cheap night out. We could have a five course meal, with all the trimmings for 100 Francs, which was the equivalent of ten shillings, and what is more, this covered the cost of a visit to a Night Club, where you could dance the night through, as long as you returned in time for the daily march to the digging area! We were quite often put on Stand By, as a counter threat to a suspected German Invasion of the Low Countries, but nothing ever happened. We saw the odd German Aircraft and witnessed the odd Dog Fight above us, but the way seemed very far away. A few were sent down to the Maginot line, where the French and German armies were in close contact, more to gain experience that anything else, but the unit itself remained on the Franco- German border. During the months of March and early April, an effort was made to give us all ten days leave in the UK. I was one of the last to get this leave, during which I acted as Best Man to Dick Shakespear, who had been my greatest friend for almost three years.
Prior to my leave, we in D Company, were saddened by the departure of our beloved Company Commander, who had been posted to India, as adjutant of our first Battalion. I did not get on with the officer who replaced him, and asked for a transfer to another Company. Much to my delight, I was sent on a Motor Transport course and having completed it, was appointed Assistant Transport Officer, under Dick Shakespear.
The German invasion of Norway, had taken place and we were suddenly told that our brigade was to be sent there to strengthen the inadequate British Forces there, and we were to board troopships at the Port of Le Havre the Battalion Transport was to leave at once, and we were to load all our vehicles on to a freighter. The Battalion itself was to follow by mixture of marching and troop transport. I will never forget the docks of Le Havre, where a few years before the French Liner “Paris” had caught fire whilst tied up to one of the wharfs and still lay on her side, alongside the main jetty.
We had just completed loading all the transport on to the ship, when a dispatch rider arrived with an urgent message, that the whole operation had been cancelled, that we were to unload all the vehicles, and to proceed as fast as we could to a certain map reference, which turned out to be a small village, near the City of Amiens, named Oissy. We finally arrived and joined up with the rest of the Battalion. We set up our transport lines under the trees, alongside the river in the grounds of the Chateau. We had not been there long when a Fire broke out in the middle of the parked vehicles, not having any heavy fire fighting equipment we alerted the local Fire Brigade. After what seemed an age, a pony and trap, not much bigger than a rickshaw, suddenly appeared. Mounted on the back was a 200 gallon tank and a pump, operated by two men, one on each side, pushing wooden bar up and down.
A large hose was attached to the pump and the other end dropped into the river. The idea was to fill the tank with water from the river. The rest of the brigade, were armed with canvas buckets which they dipped into the tank and then by human chain delivered the water to the fire itself. I have never seen anything so comical, as a team of excited Frenchmen, running around, screaming their hearts out in ever increasing circles, trying to quell the blaze! However they did manage after a long time to get the fire under control, and little damage was done.
The idea of going to the Amiens area was to take part in exercises, to practice corporation with Tanks and we must have stayed in Oissy for a few days.
My Twenty First Birthday was on the 9th May and had it not been for the Norwegian scare, they has promised me a party of all parties in Lille, which of course by now, was well behind us. They decided to hold this in Amiens, which was some 30miles from Oissy. The CO allowed us to use Army motor cycles, and we set off. It was a great evening and we had a magnificent meal, with all the trimmings, at about midnight when the party was getting well under way, we heard a commotion in the street outside, where the Military Police with megaphones, were telling all British Troops, to return to their units immediately. Hurriedly paying our bill, we retrieved our motor cycles and set off to Oissy at great speed to find everyone packed up, as the news had just been received of the German invasion of Holland and Belgium. My Batman had packed up all my gear and I just had time to change into Battledress and refuel. When we were on the road eastwards bound for Belgium. Dick and I had to control the convoy, which meant ducking in and out of the vast numbers of vehicles that were all heading in the same direction. This was no easy task, when suffering from a hangover and having had no sleep. As soon as daylight came, the trouble began, as German Stuka bombers began their work trying to disrupt the movement eastwards. It was incessant, as the wretched planes flew up and down the convoys, dropping their bombs and having done so returning and raking the lines of trucks etc. with Machine Gun fire. Every time a vehicle was hit, there was a road blockage, which we had to sort out and of course were a sitting target for Stukas.
They would appear, flying abreast and then peel off into a single line and dive on the straight line of vehicles below them. Each plane had some device fixed to the tail, which emitted a most terrible squeal which almost made your hair stand on end. Even to this day, if I hear a recording of some war film where this noise comes over I shiver all over. The only defence we had to these attacks were the individual rifles of the troops. We tried to use Bren guns from the top of the cabs, but with no fixed mountings it was a very hit or miss affair and there was about one chance in a million of shooting the aircraft down. They flew so low that you could quite clearly see the face of the pilot, who no doubt could see the clenched fists of their adversaries.
Oddly the casualties were not heavy on the first day, the 10th of May, but things got worse the further we progressed, when the roads became almost impassable with refugees making a hurried exit to the west. It seemed that every person in Belgium and Northern France evacuated their homes to avoid the hated Boch. There were heavily loaded trucks and cars, filled with all the family possessions including mattresses tied to the roof as protection from bullets and bomb fragments which could never have been effective. Horses, Donkeys and Cows added to the chaos not to mention prams and wheelbarrows carrying terrified children. The further east we went, the worse it got and the side roads became littered with dead persons and animals. Progress was painfully slow and frequently we had to stop as some badly damaged vehicle had blocked the road. In the fields alongside the road, we passed herds of cows heavy in milk, who had not been milked for hours, even days. When there was a stoppage it was nothing to see non drivers hopping over the fence and milking the poor beasts, who were in considerable pain, and then catching up with the convoy which was subject to constant bombing and strafing fire from the machine guns of the Stukas.
There was no way that any ration truck could get anywhere near us and we wear hungry. Every no and again we would pass through a town or village that had been almost flattened by the bombing and the contents of the stores had been blown into the side roads. Call it looting if you like but any food provided by this means was readily acceptable by troops and refugees alike, and no questions were asked. The saddest sight I saw was when passing a nunnery we saw twelve nuns covered in blood, lying dead on what had been the pavement. All my life I will remember the horror of this period and hope and prey that I will never see the like again. The main part of the battalion or course had to march a good deal of the way but were ferried by troop transport when it was available and when they could move at all. Those marching had to keep off the main roads as they did not have a hope of moving forward with the mass of refugees heading in the opposite direction.
As far as the transport Section was concerned, matters were not helped by the fact that the Germans has dropped parachute fifth columnists, dressed in the uniform of British Military Police. These individuals stationed themselves at crossroads and intersections and aimed to split convoys sending them down one road and some down another. I was caught like this and ended up in the outskirts of Brussels, miles away from our destination which was Ninove in Belgium where we finally met up with the rest of the Battalion on the 16th of may, having been on the road day and night since the 10th of May. I don’t recall ever having a night’s sleep during the whole of that period, but must have had the odd snore off the side of the road during some of the hold ups. We all finally moved to a place named Hal on the Chareroi canal where we were acting as a rearguard for the withdrawal of the forward elements of the British Forces who had already blown the main bridge over the Canal. The transport section had been lucky to date, and it was at Hal that we had our first casualty when Corporal Wilson received multiple wounds from machine gun fire from low flying aircraft. He survived to tell the tale and was later evacuated to England. We dug into defensive positions on the western side of the canal, within range of enemy artillery fire. This was the first time that I had experienced this and I did not like it. Our own guns put down counter fire and there was a constant swish of shells passing overhead and one had no idea which side the shells were coming from. One just went on the old adage “that you never hear the shell that hits you”. Cold Comfort!!
We thought that we would be dug in for a long battle as the Germans would be bound to find some way of crossing the river, but no sooner had we dug in that orders came for us to proceed to Arras in France where things were looking serious after the German breakthrough in the Sedan. The whole of the 5th Division of which our Brigade, the 17th Infantry Brigade, were part, were to bolster up a nasty gap in the North of the French Army in the Arras area. It seemed a long way away but we set off. This time the refugees were heading in the same direction as ourselves, which was just as bad, if not worse than our move into Belgium and the Stuka bombing still continued as before. The distance that had to be covered was about 80 miles.
Due to lack of maps, we were forced to keep to the main roads. The rifle companies from memory had to march most of the way. We had left the canal on the 18th May and arrived in the Arras area on the 21st of May. It had been a horrible trip but fortunately we suffered no casualties.
By the evening of the 21st, we had taken up a position on the lower slopes of Vimy Ridge, just below the Canadian War Memorial, erected in memory of the Canadian soldiers, who had been killed in France in the First World War. I knew the area well as I had visited it twice before the war when on battlefield tours. Contact was made with the Germans and a combined Tank and Infantry attack took place, where we gained a good deal of ground. This was of no great use as the French on our right gave way. The enemy made a massive counter attack in which they used 400 tanks. All the British had to oppose them was a force of 33 old tanks with badly worn tracks. The situation was quite hopeless and General Franklin who commanded the 5th Division ordered withdrawal.
This proved to be very difficult as we seemed to be hemmed in on all sides. One of the problems was how could they extract the transport as a lot of the roads were impassable with shell craters and bombed vehicles. Dick and I set off on our Motor Cycles to try and find an escape route.
As far as we knew the Germans had not yet entered Arras itself as the main bridge over the River Somme to the city had been blown. It was night time and riding without lights, we entered the city and headed for the river to see if we could find a crossing point. Riding towards the bridge which had been blown, we turned the corner into the main street and saw a good deal of commotion going on, wit much revving of heavy engines. We parked our bikes in an alleyway and removing our steel helmets, mingled with the crowds who were approaching a line of vehicles. To our horror we suddenly found ourselves alongside a tank with the distinctive German Iron cross markings and the crew wearing German uniforms. Pulling the collars of our jackets well up on our necks and thankful that we had left our tin hats by our bikes; we back through the crowd of spectators and returned to our machines. Driving madly back to Vimy Ridge. It was obvious that the enemy had managed to throw a bridge across the river and exit in that area was impossible. Arriving back with the transport section, we found out that the main road Northward had been cleared, there were many hazards, but it was at least passable. Assembling the convoy, we headed North towards Lens. The refugees were a constant nuisance, blocking our way, I well remember firing my revolver over their heads, in an effort to show them that we were not fooling, and that they had to leave us a clear route. This worked wonders! This was on the 23rd of May. The Battalion had managed to carry out a withdrawal, and were in an action at Douai, after which they were provided with troop transports to ferry them to Seclin, where we met up with them. This was the place where we had been stationed when we had been digging defences for some months, not that these were of any use to us, as they were all facing in the wrong direction! We still had to endure constant Stuka attacks, which made life a bit difficult, but the casualties were very light. It appeared that we would spend at least one night in Seclin, so I sent a party ahead, including Scott, my Batman, to try and secure some covered accommodation. This they did and when I arrived, Scott told me that he had found me a very comfortable billet, it certainly was! It was a lovely house, owned by a very gracious French widow, who had obviously gone to a lot of trouble on my behalf, in preparing the guest room for me. In the middle of the lovely room, was a large feather bed, which I eyed with great delight and the thought of a good nights sleep was uppermost in my mind. Taking off my boots, with the idea of not wasting any time, a Dispatch Driver appeared with a message that we had to get back on the road, without delay. So much for the comfort, that I was looking forward to!
It appeared that the whole of the British Expeditionary Force, was almost surrounded and it was vital that we kept the only port in our possession for incoming stores and the evacuation of wounded. General Lord Gort, who was commanding the BEF ordered the 5th Division to cover the withdrawal of the rest of the British Army, as a total evacuation through the Port of Dunkirk seemed a possibility. We took up a position along the Ypres Comines Canal, where we dug in. This was on the 25th of May.
Heavy fighting took place and the Battalion was forced back to the other side of the canal. All our transport, not required at the Canal, was withdrawn and we were told to find a suitable place under cover, which would be relatively free from Air Attack.
We found a suitable wooded area, hid our vehicle and set up our HQ in an adjoining farm house. It was there that we had our first hot meal for days. I regret to say that the main course was chicken from various local farm yards, whose owners had fled westwards and the jocks simply helped themselves.
Since May the 10th, we had hardly seen an aircraft with British markings. While Dick and I were eating, the Battalion Butcher, suddenly appeared at our table. He saluted smartly with a chicken bone in his spare hand, announcing “Sir, I beg to report, that I have seen a Spitfire” He had indeed, but this was the first and last we saw in the whole campaign. The Air Force was busy elsewhere.
The Belgian farmer, allowed us to borrow his radio and switching over to short wave, we were able to get some British news. This was the morning of the 27th of May. Having eaten an excellent meal, we set about doing some maintenance on the vehicles which was long over due. Listening to a second new broadcast, we heard that the BEF had indeed been surrounded and the chances of any troops getting back to Britain were very remote. Making a short Recce: Dick and I rode down the road and were amazed to see the drivers of one unit, armed with sledge hammers, bashing the hell out of all their vehicles, slashing tyres and generally wrecking each vehicle in turn. We made enquiries and were told that they had been ordered to destroy all their vehicles and after that every man was to get to the coast, the best way he could and head for Britain.
No way, were they to attempt to drive the trucks or whatever, as this would cause congestion on the roads and get in the way of the troops still fighting. We returned to our HQ at the Farmhouse, to find out that we had not received any orders about destroying our transport. As we were discussing the matter, a dispatch rider from Battalion arrived and handed us an urgent signal, telling us that they were running out of ammunition and that a further supply was urgently required. Two large three ton trucks were already loaded with ammunition, calling the drivers, we ordered them to follow our motor cycles. We had no maps of the area and had been given no map reference and could only rely on the information that we had extracted from the battalion dispatch rider, regarding the position of the BHQ. We had a vague and headed for the village of Voormozelle. Leaving the village, we found ourselves on a ridge in open country. Getting the truck drivers to put their vehicles under cover, we moved along the ridge, stopping from time to time to establish our position. We felt quite certain that we were going the right direction, as we recognised hill 60 in the distance. Just below us we could see the odd stretch of a canal. We had not reached the highest point of the ridge, so we thought that by getting there, we might get a better view through field glasses. We stopped our bikes and Dick dismounted, while I remained in the saddle with my feet on the ground. Suddenly there was an enormous flash and I found myself on the ground with the heavy bike on top of me. I must have been unconscious for a moment, for when I came to; Dick had pulled the bike off me and was pulling my first aid dressing out of its pocket in my battledress. I felt a hot stream of blood, flowing out of my head and just above my right eye, and I could see nothing with either eye. Dick must have laid me out on the ground and placed the field dressing over the injured area. It turned out that the Germans, must have spotted us on the ridge and let fly with a mortar shell, a large fragment of which had hit me just above the right eye. The curious thing was that Dick had been standing closer to the explosion than I was and although knocked to the ground, was not in any way hit. We were both wearing steel helmets, but when riding a motorcycle, one tends to tip the thing backwards, to avoid getting wind under the rim, so my forehead was not protected! While Dick was attending to my wound I heard a car pull up and I heard Dick say “It’s the Brigade Commander, Monty Stopford.” Helping Dick to get me into his car, I remember him saying “ He looks bad, I will take him to the dressing station, Which is just down the road.” I then heard the brigadier, giving Dick the exact whereabouts of Battalion HQ and he shot off to pick up the two trucks and from what I gathered he, though very shaken was able to deliver the goods. The Brigadier dropped me off at the dressing station, which was housed in what had been a monastery, and had been taken over by the Royal Army Medical Corps. The Brigadier must have had a busy day, as another friend of mine, who was wounded on the same day was also taken to the same dressing station by this kind gentleman!
The day was the 27th of May and I estimate that I must have been wounded at about 1800hrs. On Arrival at the dressing station I was placed on a stretcher and laid on the floor. Although I could see nothing, I gathered that I had been put into a room with the very badly wounded and judging by the screams and groans this would have been the case.
No Doctor came anywhere near me and my blood covered field dressing was still in place. I have no idea how long I remained on the floor and the first thing I can remember was being spoken to by a man with a broad Ayrshire accent, who addressed me by name. It turned out to be Piper Hardy, who had been our Company Piper, when I had been with D Company. He knelt beside me and told me that he had been wounded in one arm, but that his feet were ok. He asked if he could do anything for me, I told him that I wanted to urinate, so he beckoned a medical orderly who in due course arrived with a bottle. I told Hardy that I was far too sore to cope. While all this was going on, German shells began dropping around the building and Hardy got me up against a wall for protection. Just at that time I heard the noise of a vehicle pulling up quite close to us. It appeared that this was an ambulance which was evacuating the wounded and taking them to the field hospital further down the line. Hardy told me to stay where I was and he went over to see the driver. I could hear the conversation, which went something like this. “ Have you got any room for one more?” The reply indicated that he already had a full load. The next thing I heard was Hardy pleading with the driver, saying “ This is my officer, he is real bad, please find room for him” His pleading must have worked, as the next thing I knew was that I was hoisted up and placed on the floor of the ambulance and we began moving. I am thankful to say that Hardy survived and returned to the UK. Some months later, I was able to contact him, to thank him for his efforts and I still have his reply, in which he modestly says that he was only doing his duty!
I had no idea where the Field Hospital was situated, but we presumed that we must be heading for the coast. It was a nightmare journey and as usual the refugees fleeing towards the sea blocked all the roads. The bombing and strafing from the Stuka bombers continued as before.
All army ambulances are clearly marked with large red crosses, but this made no difference to the German pilots, who seemed to want to destroy everything on the road. Our vehicle was hit by machine gun fire several times, but we still kept going. I must have lapsed into moments of unconsciousness from time to time and remember little about the trip, other than the moaning and groaning of some of my badly wounded fellow passengers. As far as I was concerned, I was totally blind, so I could not see what was going on. This may have been just as well. Finally I was told that we arrived at the Field Hospital, situated on a hill, overlooking the port of Dunkirk, which I am told was completely covered with black smoke from the burning oil tanks, of which there were many in the port area. As far as I know, we spent the best part of a day there, where we just lay on the floor and waited.
We were told that we were to be evacuated by hospital ship and in due course were removed by ambulance to one of the moles in the harbour, where the hospital ship “Paris” was tied up. The harbour was under constant bombing attacks and to make matters worse, it was within German artillery range. The noise was deafening. By this time they had removed the filthy field dressing from the wound and my blood stained battledress had been sponged down but I had not even had a proper wash. I can still remember my stretcher being lifted over the ships rails and then being placed on a bed somewhere and being attended to by a nurse who changed my dressing. Never did a female voice sound so lovely and I was handled with loving care. After the hell we had been through, the female touch was quite something. The worst thing that I of course, was never able to see her face. With bombs and shells dropping all around us, we set off on a zig zag course for Newhaven, where we landed on the 31st of May. A hospital train was waiting for us and we were met by an enthusiastic crowd who handed round cups of tea and cakes and gave us a great welcome home. We were bound for Lichfield where we were placed in an emergency hospital, which had been a pre-war mental asylum, with the name of Burntwood. On arrival at Lichfield railway station our stretchers were laid out on the platform. Ladies of various voluntary organisations dispensed cups of tea and cakes and cigarettes to us. I remember one lady stopping by my stretcher and asking me whether I would like a cigarette. I replied in the affirmative but asked her to light one for me and I could not see anything. As she did this I heard her say to a friend “poor boy is blind. Sad, he looks so young” I then realised that I was probably blind and all sorts of horrible thoughts went through my mind.