The Battle of Arras and the road to St Eloi
There are better books available to describe the battle of Arras and other units played a more active role during the next few days, so I will cover this by reproducing extracts from the battalion war diary and from some of the private diaries of members of the battalion.
[2RSF war diary] 22nd May - During the morning the battalion moved forward again to take up position west of Arras on the line of the River Scarpe, which was supposed to be held by the French, but it was found on arrival, the French numbered a mere handful. The move down from Vimy Ridge was greatly impeded by heavy and constant aerial attack, the roads becoming almost unusable, as they were blocked by dead refugees and their carts.
[Lt Livingstone Bussell’s diary] The Company fell in at about ten o'clock ready to march off. Just as Johnny was about to give the order to move off, there was a curious whizzing noise and then a thud. I have never seen the Company move so fast before as they did to get into the slit trenches under the huts. This noise occurred twice, and I think they must have been dud bombs. However, we fell in again five minutes later and marched across country in open order towards Arras. When we were half way there a French Artillery position on our right flank received a heavy bombardment. Two miles short of our new position at St. Catharine’s Bridge the Company closed and we marched down the road for the rest of the way in threes. Shells were continually exploding off the road on our left. On reaching St. Catherine’s village we cut off to the right through some houses and parked the Company on the edge of a field while Johnny and I reconnoitred a route to the position. Shells were still falling in the vicinity. Finally, the platoons took up a position on the edge of a stream and spent the night digging in.
[17 Bde war diary] 10:00 - Bns started to move fwd from the Vimy area to occupy the posn. They were covered by a screen of carriers and were attacked at intervals by dive bombers on the forward move.
The 17 Brigade front was then formed as follows:
On the left flank the 2nd RSF with its left flank in the outskirts of Arras. In the centre the 6th Seaforths and on their right the 2nd Northamptons. On the right of the Brigade was the D.L.M. (French Armoured Division) Just after the positions were taken, a heavy concentration of enemy tanks, estimated to be about 60 in number, was observed to be concentrating on the right flank.
[2RSF war diary] 12:00hrs - The enemy shelled the whole front heavily. The battalion started to have a fairly constant stream of casualties. Air attacks continued throughout the day.
[Lt Livingstone Bussell’s diary] We arrived at St. Catharine’s at 3 p.m., but the Company spent some hours in some farm buildings, which were eventually Company H.Q.s while Johnny [Capt Vaughan] made his reconnaissance. They got into position at about 6 o'clock. We spent the night in a house opposite the farm which had a cellar although its windows were on street level. The village church and surrounding buildings had been completely smashed up. A few refugees were strolling about, both men and women. Difficult to know what to do about them as I was sure several of them were fifth columnists. I met Major Morrison in the evening who told me to go up and contact the Green Howards the next morning. I had a few hours’ sleep in a very comfortable bed. One of the few nights that we were able to put on our pyjamas. There was a 30cwt truck which had got stuck in a shell hole outside our Coy H.Q. I think it ran into it about 5 a.m. but as the Northamptons didn't come back for it, we towed it away with us, and used it until the end.
[17 Bde Anti-tank war diary] On the morning of the 23rd, 2Lt Whitehead arrived from brigade, and reported to Capt Goldie that enemy tanks were thought to be approaching, from the Bde right flank. Positions were taken up. No tanks in force were seen, but our guns opened fire at long range on two tanks.
Two guns under 2Lt Smith were withdrawn, but one gun was captured by the enemy, who shelled the Northamptonshires are very heavily, and rendered the position untenable. Four guns under Capt Goldie eventually withdrew, with the French tanks and took up a position in two groups. One group of guns under Capt Goldie in Neuville St Vaast, and one group of two guns on the high ground above, under CSM Lunn. Lt Thomson commanded the carriers, and also withdrew to the line of Neuville-Ecuries.
Coy HQ and 2Lt Whitehead had a few awkward minutes dodging three Messerschmitt’s, who machine gunned the party, and also the carriers, though without much results. Two soldiers were wounded, three haystacks proving a most able shield.
[17 Bde war diary] 23rd May 10:45 Enemy pressure was increasing against the 2 Northamptons and 6 Seaforth. The former reported that the enemy had crossed the R.Scarpe and were in Mont St Eloi and Mareouil villages. A later report from 2 Northamptons stated that they had been forced back from the river line by a distance of 1000 yds on their right and to the north edge of Mareouil on the left. The situation in in Mareouil was restored at about 12:00 hrs by a counter attack carried out by the reserve company 6 Seaforth (Captain Whitelaw)
[2RSF war diary] 23nd May - Enemy pressure increased on the Bde right flank. During the early afternoon, the Bde sector was subject to concentrated dive-bombing attacks and heavy shelling following the withdrawal of the D.L.M., leaving the Bde right flank absolutely open, the enemy succeeded in working his way round the right flank and well behind the Bde front. It was decided to withdraw the Bde to face a new front thus created. The Bde swung back, pivoted on the RSF left, which maintained its original position, and a general line was taken up along the Arras – Souchez road. The withdrawal was subjected to heavy shelling and dive-bombing attacks which inflicted many casualties. The new position was held.
[2RSF war diary] 24th May – 02:30hrs - The Bde was ordered to come out of action. There was no enemy pressure during the darkness, but as soon as daylight came the battalion, which was the rear-guard, was subjected to shelling and low-flying attacks, as well as long range M.G. fire.
The battalion’s withdrawal was along a very devious route owing to M.G. fire from its flanks. During the 27-mile march to Douai, Lt Thomson and the carriers did excellent work in engaging enemy M.G.’s, thus materially assisting in the withdrawal of the battalion. During the afternoon, the Douai area was reached. During the night, the battalion proceeded to Templemar area by M.T., reaching it during the night 24/25th.
Lt Col. Tod’s journey to re-join the battalion
When the Germans invaded the low countries on the 10th May, Lt Col Tod was on leave in the UK. He wrote a letter after the war describing his journey back to the battalion. The handwriting in this letter is very difficult to read and some parts have proved impossible!
As I sat down to breakfast [on the 10th May], the head waiter came and told me that the Germans had started their offensive. I of course went to the war office for instructions and was told to finish my leave until I heard to the contrary.
I did not hear from the war office again so at the end of my leave and after I got away I was shipped over to Cherbourg. At Cherbourg, there were hundreds of officers and men of different units, amongst them was the acting CO of the Cameronians, a very fat gentleman, whose name I think was Pop Gilmour, and the 2i/c of the Wiltshire. We were all told that the troops at Cherbourg were to remain there and that there was no rail or any transport. Naturally we three senior regimental officers felt we could not remain in Cherbourg while our battalions were in action somewhere in Belgium. So, we went to the commandant to explain the situation. The commandant, a retired general was…. He was charming about it and said trust….. he would try to help us.
About an hour later he sent for us and told us that an MTB had just arrived from England with instructions to take a load of troops to Dunkirk if and we got the skipper to take us with him, the commandant would not interject. The skipper of the MTB was very willing to take us and the next morning we set off going all out on a dead calm sea. As we passed Calais we were fired on from a battery on the shore, but the fall was a long way behind us.
A we got near Dunkirk, the sea was covered with wreckage of all kinds and I assumed bombed out ships, some of which were still burning. The skipper of the MTB searched around a bit in case there were any survivors to pick up, but we saw nothing. As it was getting dark a German plane came over us and dropped two bombs, one very close. The skipper of the MTB shut off his engines till his wake subsided and this plane after searching round for a little went off, obviously not able to spot us.
At Dunkirk, we found things chaotic. The harbour had been pretty heavily bombed. French and Belgian soldiers were pouring in from all directions and there was a mass of rumours but little or no information.
It was soon quite obvious that if we wanted to get to our units, we would have to do it without…. To find some sort of transport…. There was no difficulty in finding cars, there were…of… up on the quay. The cars belonged to diplomats and staff officers who probably had been ordered to England and who had abandoned their cars and many of their drivers as well.
We had considerable difficulty in getting a driver to get us on our way, but in the end, we got one, a splendid chap ready for anything. He had filled his car up with gallons of petrol and off we went on the Dunkirk - Ypres road. The motoring along was quite without adventure.
The only thing of interest was about 10 miles from Dunkirk, the road was heavy with refugees and Belgian soldiers without arms but carrying suitcases and household goods of all sorts. I found this a bit depressing and not like the Belgian forces of the first war. The other thing was that at Paradis crossroads we found civilians by way of directing traffic and shouting out that the Germans were just a few miles behind.
Actually, there were no Germans for miles, though their planes were bombing machine gunning the town. Thinking of afterwards I believe that those traffic directors were 5h Column making everything doubly confused. None of the three of us had of course any knowledge of where our battalions were, so that when we got to near Ypres, it was a case of going from village to village asking for information. By chance in a small village I ran into Butterfield, 5th Division liaison officer. He was particularly cool and collected and told me all about my battalion and explained that they had just come out of action west of Arras and were now in some billets and lines well south of Lille. I located my battalion on the evening of the 24th of May in Seclin and was able to give my two companions a whisky and soda as well as some information as to where their own battalions were.
That ends the story of a not really very thrilling journey!