The Fighting Patrol and the Counter Attack
Following their experiences on the Saar front, in early April the Fighting Patrol was formed. It was composed the toughest and most aggressive members of the battalion.
They were placed in A Coy under the command of 2Lt. R.V. Cholmondeley a 30 year old supplementary reserve officer, who had answered the call in 1939 from his home in Australia.
His fitness and aggressive outdoor nature marked him out as an ideal choice.
Their first test was to conduct a raid against D Coy on the 15th of April, which was a great success.
On the night of the 26th of May, 2Lt Cholmondeley led his patrol out through the positions of A Coy, skirting around the edge of Klein Zillebeke and penetrating the countryside to their front as far as Hill 62. Here they witnessed the German 7th Artillery Regiment/ 51st Division setting up their guns. Their observations and the prisoner they returned with helped the divisional artillery bring down effective counter battery fire during the coming battle.
The patrol report goes as follows:
Fighting Patrol report for 26th May 1940:
2Lt. Cholmondeley and 14 ORs.
We crossed the steep railway embankments at 20:45 and passed through the A company positions. Avoiding the houses to our front, the patrol headed east towards a dense wood.
Some German voices, horse and vehicle noises were heard further east, as we passed through the wood using a wide track.
At 22:30 red flares appeared to the south and west indicating that the forward companies had made contact with the enemy. We waited on the northern edge of the wood for the light to fade before heading north.
We stopped at 00:00 observing German artillery being set up near Hill62, types could not be discerned due to the poor light. Before heading back we made contact with 2 German soldiers, killing one and capturing the other.
The Fighting Patrol made its way south through Fusilier wood and making contact with C company along the railway line at 01:20.
The enemy soldier they killed was Gunner Hans Lautenschlager, the name of the NCO who was captured is still unknown, as is what happened to him.
The fighting patrol retired to the woods behind D Coy to rest until 06:00 when they were stood to, due to the developing situation.
By 12:30 on the afternoon of the 27th, the situation had deteriorated to a point where the forward rifle companies were being cut off and surrounded. (By this time both the Seaforths and the Inniskillings had been forced back on either side of the battalion forming a dangerous salient) Col. Tod sent 2Lt. Maitland-Makgill-Crichton, his intelligence officer with an order for the fighting patrol to conduct a counter attack to allow the rifle companies to disengage.
The order also requested that the carriers of No4 platoon support them whilst the moved through the open fields to their front.
Before they could attack, at about 13:00 a mass of German infantry emerged from the woods to their front, luckily the machine guns of the 1/9th Manchesters, along with the battery of 25 pounders based near BHQ were quick to react and the edge of the wood became a brief killing ground. As the Germans pulled back, the Fusiliers launched their counter attack, heading straight into the woods to their front and then hooking around, without the carriers to their left.
The fighting in the woods was fierce, most of which was at close range or hand to hand. Due to the thick undergrowth, most casualties fell without being seen by their fellow fusiliers. Piper Buchanan, was a member of the patrol and was asked at a later date if he had seen Fusilier D. Reid 3130478 or Fusilier D. Hamilton 31278732.
His statement is below:
He (Buchanan) was a member of a fighting patrol of roughly 1 platoon strong.
They attacked a big wood which may be called “Beeswood” (BattleWood) between hill 60 and Ypres. He saw the Fusiliers referred to and is sure that they did not leave the wood.
In his opinion it is unlikely that they are alive.
Hamilton was part of the fighting patrol and Reid a member of C Coy.
The surviving Germans rallied together, setting up a machine gun post in the old WW1 crater just behind A Coy on Hill60. If this wasn’t neutralised neither A Coy nor the fighting patrol could disengage and withdraw safely.
With his usual aggressive and energetic nature, 2Lt. Cholmondeley led a charge into the crater, either killing the remaining Germans or forcing them to retreat onto the railway line to the west. This final action cost him his life along with those of L/Cpl Barnes, Fus. White, Boyd and Patterson.
Other members of the fighting patrol were badly wounded during this action and the subsequent withdrawal through the woods. Amongst them was 2Lt. Maitland-Makgill-Crichton, who had accompanied the patrol. It was noted at the time that he had been shot by a sniper whilst taking over from 2Lt. Cholmondeley during the withdrawal.
The counter attack is described by Jacques Cossart, who owned the “White House” and talked with many of the German survivors after the action.
On their right, further to the north, 2nd and 4th companies, (of the 54th Infantry regiment) in small groups move through the first of the houses in the village that they have conquered and infiltrate the gardens and alleys ahead. The gap increases between those of the 1st / 3rd and the 2nd / 4th.
So the commanders of the 1st and 3rd companies signal the men to advance, instantly, hundreds of men leap onto the road and at once the artillery based near the Farm Vergote at Palingbeek opens fire, landing shells at an insane rate, and illuminating the two small woods. As if they were a house of cards, the attackers dive for cover. Gusts of machine gun and artillery fire break over them with an indescribable savagery.
Suddenly without warning, tanks leap out from behind the small woods, the Scottish soldiers following them. An immense Hurrah is sounded that could be heard in the village of Zillebeke and the Scottish soldiers enter the Park again. Along with their tanks, they charge forward, the Germans turn and run everywhere at the same time. They push forwards and regain their positions along the edge of the railway line.
The following members of the 54th Infantry Regiment were also killed during the attack:
E. Schmidt – 4th Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
H. Hubrich – 3rd Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
H. Schwirn - 3rd Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
W. Bleul - 3rd Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
G. Seibt - 3rd Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
T. Heimann – 1st Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
P. Watschon – 1st Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
E. Lewig – 1st Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
G. Forester – 1st Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
G. Lampke – 1st Company, 54th Infantry Regiment
The exact casualty figures for both sides are lost, especially those wounded and evacuated after the battle.