From: The Rifle Brigade in the Second World War 1939-1945 by Major R.H.W.S. Hastings of The Rifle Brigade, published by Gale and Polden Ltd, Aldershot 1950.
As motor battalions, The Rifle Brigade had, perhaps, the most continuously exciting of all roles. This book tells the story, from the angle of the Regiment, of the most famous campaigns of the whole war —not least those against Rommel. As such it is of interest not to Riflemen only nor merely to the many other regiments and individuals who are mentioned in the story, but to anyone making a serious study of the war or wishing to revive memories of his own particular part in it.
The fortunes of the Rifle Brigade in the Second World War seemed always to carry them to the forefront of the battle, at Calais, throughout the Desert War, from the earliest days of the 7th Armoured Division to the Axis surrender at Tunis, in all the famous battles of these years, in cutting off the Italian army, the crowning victory of Wavell's campaign, at Sidi Rezegh, at Alamein, where the 2nd Battalion fought one of the most spectacular and successful actions of any individual unit. Battalions were in Italy, from Salerno until they led the Eighth Army into Austria, and in North-West Europe, capturing intact the bridge at Amiens, sweeping on to Antwerp, fighting through Germany itself.
This painting by Terence Cuneo depicts the final moments of The Rifle Brigade in the battle for the Defence of Calais.
The aftermath of the Defence of Calais.
Pont Faidherbe and the bridge area, pictures taken from the Town Hall.
The aftermath of the Defence of Calais.
Pont Faidherbe and the bridge area, pictures taken from the Bridge.
R.D.C notes: An article from the Rifle Brigade Chronicle of 1945 by Major A.W. Allen DSO a Rifle Brigade officer captured at Calais and like so many others of the battalion spent five years as a P.O.W.
'Readers of the Chronicle who followed in its pages the fortunes of the 1st Battalion in the busy pre-war years of its pioneering activities as the first motor battalion of the Army will have gleaned some idea of the magnitude of the task involved, as well as the success achieved. Much of the credit so justly given to the motor battalions of the 8th and other British armies during the war years can fairly be attributed to the hard groundwork of 1937-40. But, however much their role was changed, the men of the old 1st Battalion took it in their stride, remaining essentially the same riflemen as ever.
The following pages are designed to give a short sketch of how this unit came temporarily to pass from ken in the days of the defence of Calais, where such success as was achieved against Germany's best trained and equipped troops was attributable still in the main to the rifle and the spirit of the man behind it'.
On Tuesday, 21st May, 1940, the Battalion, dispersed in Suffolk villages, had done a hard day's work constructing road blocks in anticipation of the German invasion of England, then regarded as imminent. Orders received at 1900 hrs. for an immediate move to Southampton resulted in the whole unit being under way in fully packed vehicles at 2315 hrs. An exhausting drive in pouring rain ended at Southampton at midday on the 22nd, where a scratch meal was served to the men on the Avenue.
Vehicles were taken straight to the docks and loaded as they were, with all ammunition, weapons, etc. (except for forty rounds S.A.A. per man and eight Bren guns) on to the vehicle ship. Some two hours later the Battalion marched in hot. sunny weather to embark on a personnel ship, s.s. Archangel, passing en route a cricket match, a typical scene of peaceful England. The German armoured thrust was then at, or approaching Abbeville.
The men spent the night packed like sardines, only those not on duty being able to get a few hours' fitful sleep, as the convoy of two personnel and two vehicle ships, with the 2nd/60th Rifles and 1 Rifle Brigade, steamed up the Channel to Dover. Here Brigadier Nicholson received his orders to move, on disembarkation at Calais, to operate somewhere beyond St. Omer on the right flank of the B.E.F. It was known that the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment had gone to Calais the previous night with similar orders. The third unit of the 30th Infantry Brigade (1st Queen Victoria's Rifles, previously billeted in Kent) had crossed from Dover on the 21st and were awaiting the arrival of the rest of the Brigade at Calais.
The convoy sailed from Dover under escort of one destroyer, and during the crossing the Brigadier issued orders for the battalions to move to dispersal areas clear of the harbour on disembarkation, and to await the unloading of vehicles, etc. As vehicles arrived, units were to concentrate right and left of the Calais— Boulogne road, the first unit to disembark to take the right. This order had, in the event, the effect of determining the tasks of the 60th and Rifle Brigade, for, as the personnel ships steamed into Calais Harbour at 1300 hrs. on Thursday, 23rd May (after an ineffectual attempt by German aircraft to bomb them and amid depth charges dropped by the escort), the 60th's ship berthed first.
From the moment of arrival it was plain that the battle for Calais was on. A movement control staff officer, a D.S.T.O. and a few khaki-clad figures were only there to handle the warps and one or two short gang- planks. Broken glass from the station and hotel buildings littered the quays and platforms, in which many bomb craters were visible besides overturned and bombed trucks on the lines.
As he stepped ashore, the Brigadier was informed by the movement control staff officer that all telephone communications at the quay with England and France were cut by fifth columnists and Germans; that the town was full of snipers; that the location of B.E.F. Headquarters, last heard of near Hazebrouck, had not been known for some time and could not be conjectured; and that German armoured columns were already operating between Boulogne and Calais.
The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment were still unloading the last of their " B " Echelon,but the regiment had already moved south of Calais and were rumoured to have met opposition. The Brigadier departed for the town to find the Base Commandant, and battalions filed off the ships to their dispersal area, the men gazing curiously at the piles of abandoned kit lying on the quays jettisoned by crowds of soldiers and airmen who were being shepherded onto the ship, recently vacated by the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, homeward bound. These troops were in the main non-combatant personnel, R.A.F. ground staff, H.Q. clerks, etc., who had suffered a severe battering by the Luftwaffe on their travels to the coast. They bore every sign of this, and made a far from cheerful welcome to the theatre of war.
The dispersal area for the 1st Rifle Brigade was in the sand-dunes to the east of the harbour mouth. The C.O. was quickly called away and Major J. A. Taylor, who had temporarily taken over Second-in-Command in the absence of that officer on special duty, set companies, after a hasty meal, to digging trenches.
It was well that he did so, for such protection as was then prepared was used throughout the battle and it was in this area that the last rounds were fired. The after-noon wore on, with the vehicle ships still churning up the mud in the falling harbour tide in the absence of tugs to haul them into the quays, and it was not until 1700 hrs. that the 60th vehicle ship berthed and unloading began.
She got the benefit of three cranes, while the Rifle Brigade ship, last in, had only one. Soon after unloading began, the first enemy shells fell on the far side of the harbour.This shelling combined with an excited mob of civilians yelling " Les Allemands," was in full view of the Battalion, which could also see that some form of scrap was taking place down the coast towards Boulogne. Now came the news that the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment had fought an action only a few kilometres south of their position, and were with-drawing into Calais itself, and officers began to feel more than impatient for the arrival of their weapons and equipment.
Unloading proceeded very slowly. The British stevedores had worked for thirty-six hours at unloading a supply ship of rations for the B.E.F. on to lorries, and were almost too tired to stand. There was no French dock labour, with the exception of the operators of the cranes. Parties from each company standing by to take away vehicles did what they could to help, but it was found that unskilled labour was more inclined to delay unloading than otherwise. So darkness fell, with little that was required ashore, and already there were new orders for the Rifle Brigade. requiring the use of all transport urgently.It would be convenient here to anticipate a little and to explain that there were really four phases of the action at Calais corresponding with fresh orders received by Brigadier Nicholson.
These orders varied in accordance with information as it was collated by higher authority. The first, as has been said, was the preparation for concentration south-west of the town, with a view to advancing inland and operating against enemy light troops on the flank of the main battle. At this time it was believed that enemy armoured cars only were operating in the areas Abbeville Calais.
Next, the urgency of the supply situation for the B.E.F., now withdrawing on Dunkirk, pressed for the delivery of the 350,000 rations unloaded on 22nd May at Calais, and the Rifle Brigade was ordered to escort them half- way to Dunkirk, while the 60th and the Queen Victoria's Rifles held the enemy from Calais. The enemy was now realized to be stronger than formerly supposed (for Boulogne was to be evacuated), but only light armoured forces were still estimated.
Thirdly, early on 24th May orders were received for the defence of Calais, but the Brigadier was informed that evacuation of defending troops would probably be undertaken that night. Later, this evacuation was postponed until the 25th. Lastly, at some time on the 25th, Brigadier Nicholson received the order to hold out to the last, and that every moment the enemy could be held off was of the utmost importance to the safety of the B.E.F. This last order reached the 1st Rifle Brigade some time shortly before midnight on the 25th and was repeated continually throughout the 26th by various means.
Now, as the evening of the 23rd drew on, Lieut.-Colonel Hoskyns gave out the orders to "A" and "1" Companies for concentration areas north of the Calais—Dunkirk road preparatory to picketing the route for some twelve miles, after which protection would be taken over by troops from Dunkirk. "B" Company was detailed as escort to the supply column, with a detachment of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment under command. The column was to start at midnight.
These orders were not destined to be carried out for various reasons, the first being the desperately slow rate of unloading of vehicles. " A " Company's scout platoon (2/Lieut. A. P. R. Rolt) was made up to strength and drove to its rendezvous some seven miles to the east. On arrival there, local information indicated that enemy tanks were already in the area and surrounding the platoon.
A despatch rider arrived from Capt. P. Peel, who had taken over "A" Company, with withdrawal orders, but, as the D.R. only gave these orders verbally, Rolt asked for confirmation and laagered for the night with all-round defence. During the night a number of fires were lit in his neighbourhood on all sides. These proved to be the enemy forward tanks lighting signals to show their aircraft the limit of their advance. It was only by the exercise of considerable skill that this platoon extricated itself without loss the following morning, after receiving confirmatory orders to withdraw.
Meanwhile, as vehicles slowly became available, Major G. L. Hamilton-Russell, O.C. " B" Company, with Capt. C. M. Smiley as his second-in-command, received four composite platoons made up from all companies, and was ready at the appointed hour for his escort duties. The tank commander, however, insisted on delaying the start until first light, and it was not until nearly 0500 hrs. on the 24th that the column got under way (the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment had, as stated, fought an action on the outskirts of Calais on the 23rd, in which they had lost about a squadron strength of their tanks).
Rifle Brigade companies still awaited their vehicles, but " I " Company's scout platoon (2/Lieut. D. R. Sladen), mounted in trucks, and 2/Lieut. C. R. C. Weld-Forester's platoon (dismounted) were placed to the east of Calais, the 60th having by now taken up positions to the west and south-west on the outer defences of Calais with their left about the St. Omer road.The 1st Queen Victoria's Rifles still held the thin line of advanced positions west and south of Calais to which they had been directed on arrival. During the night a complete hiatus had taken place on the quay; all the staff having gone away to sleep in utter exhaustion, and the essential men who worked the cranes had disappeared after several shell splinters had landed in the holds of the ships. It was mainly by the superhuman efforts of Capt. T. R. Gordon-Duff that the cranes were got working again and unloading resumed slowly.
Sundry ships of the Royal Navy came in during the night, one destroyer bringing Major-General McNaughton commanding the1st Canadian Division to reconnoitre. Despite desultory shelling and bombing during the hours of darkness, the Battalion suffered no loss so far as is known, and the first casualties occurred in " Boy " Hamilton-Russell's column. This met opposition within some two miles of Calais amongst the suburban "ribbon development”and allotments. A strong enemy road block defeated the Advanced guard tanks, which found flanking movement impossible.
A gallant effort by 2/Lieut J.F.H.Surtees, with carriers, was also unsuccessful, but while he pinned the enemy so far located, 2/Lieut. E. A. Bird's platoon of " B " Company was sent round the right flank, while P.S.M. Stevens covered the left flank with " I " Company troops. Touch was lost with Bird (who, in fact, had become involved with enemy infantry posts south of the road) and several casualties were incurred from well-directed enemy mortar fire on the reserve platoons, a motley-mounting truck receiving a direct hit. Hamilton-Russell's orders were interrupted by accurate fire wherever his command post was moved.
The Commanding Officer and Brigadier were present during a considerable part of the five-hour effort to break the passage, and, after reports from David Sladen, and other posts, which strongly con -firmed that the "Boy's" command was rapidly being surrounded by superior forces, he received orders to withdraw. Bird's platoon re-joined just as the withdrawal began, well pleased with having inflicted ten or more casualties on the enemy. They had lost, however, Cpl. Cross killed, and three or four riflemen were carried back wounded.
The column was back in Calais by 1100 hrs on the 24th, and "B" Company (less No. 6 Platoon) now took up positions in reserve near the cellulose factory, while the remainder joined their companies. Much had occurred during their absence. The 60th's vehicle ship, which carried Brigade Headquarters vehicles, completed unloading at about 0430 hrs and was then filled with wounded from the first of two hospital trains which had been standing in the station before its arrival.
Unloading of the Rifle Brigade ship continued, but at about 0730 hrs orders were given by the quay staff, who stated that they had Brigadier Nicholson's permission, to close down the holds and load with the wounded of the second hospital train. Both trainloads of patients were transferred by Rifle Brigade personnel, but more than twenty men who had died in the train were left on the quay, which had now for some hours been under shell fire.
The stevedores and their officers and some of the quay staff embarked, and the ship sailed at about 0830 hrs., followed some time later by the 60th's ship, which carried the remainder of the quay staff (except the D.S.T.O.), as well as the brigadier lately commanding the Boulogne base, and other persons who had escaped from that place. The ships were shelled from a south-easterly direction as they left the harbour, but not hit.
The 1st Rifle Brigade's deficiency in equipment was now severe. All scout cars and the six Bren guns they carried had been handed to the 1st Armoured Division just before embarkation, and the premature departure of the vehicle ship left them some 50 per cent short of weapons and equipment; the Signal Officer (Lieut. J. P. Duncanson) had only one (No. 9) truck, only " B" Company had its W/T truck; carriers were barely enough to make up two scout platoons; the M.O. had no medical stores or transport, and "B" Echelon no tools. Fortunately, the reserve ammunition had come ashore.
A lot was done to remedy this state of affairs. By 2/Lieut. R. G. L. Tryon's (T.O.) and others' efforts, vehicles were, in many cases, replaced from the mass of abandoned material in Calais, several Bren guns even being "scrounged" and at least one scout car. Wally Straight was most successful in finding rations in various places under sniping and other fire, and in distributing them. The men, in fact, were never short of food, but rather of time in which to eat any.
A limited amount of 3-inch mortar ammunition (not issued to the Battalion up to the time of embarkation) was brought in by the Royal Navy as well as quantities of petrol and gelignite for demolition. The Royal Navy demolition party reported, however, that the primers brought were the wrong size, and at about 1300 hrs they, as well as the D.S.T.O. and the Admiralty wireless ship, left Calais; the quay now being entirely deserted of officials.
For some time the increasing enemy fire had added considerably to the difficulties in movement and " sorting out." Fires were blazing everywhere; oil tanks smoking. Gordon-Duff, who had been put in charge of the protection of the quays with two scratch platoons of spare drivers, was hard put to it to keep them clear of refugee civilians. He and his men also succeeded in saving some light tanks out of several set on fire, but the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment were already sadly reduced in tank strength by the afternoon of the 24th. One squadron had been sent to reconnoitre the coast road through Grave-lines.
The Germans had already reached the coast, and this squadron, after a sharp action in which it is believed the Germans lost heavily, was absorbed into the Dunkirk defences.
During the morning the 60th had been fighting in the outer defences of Calais in extended positions interspersed with two companies of the Queen Victoria's Rifles. The remaining half of that regiment was put under Lieut.-Colonel Hoskyns's command, and was reinforced by platoons of the 1st Rifle Brigade. 2/Lieut. F. Reed, with No. 10 Platoon of "C" Company, had put himself under command of Capt. Bower, of the 60th, at the point of junction with that regiment. Here at 0500 hrs two German prisoners were taken, and at 0600 hrs two light tanks were driven off.
Nothing is known of the adventures of Lieut. W. M. Welch's platoon ("B" Company), posted on the Dunkirk exit, from the time the column returned until 1600 hrs. Da vid Sladen (No. 13 Platoon) reported at about 1100 hrs. large enemy forces moving from south to north across his front, and the C.O. ordered this and No. 14 Platoon posts to be withdrawn to the line of battlements. This was effected by No. 13 Platoon withdrawing through No. 14 Platoon (who also towed in an anti-tank gun taken under command) and covering its retirement in turn.
The enemy took no action. At 1145 hrs., after the Queen Victoria's Rifles had reported the outer perimeter no longer tenable, the C.O. ordered " I " and " A " Companies to occupy the inner perimeter : " I " Company on the right from the end of the bridge under the Mairie clock tower (in touch here with the 60th Rifles), then southwards 400 yards to the canal junction, thence 800 yards east-wards to the junction of the battlements with the canal (here " I " Company was in touch with " A " Company). " A " Company held from this corner (inclusive of the bridge) facing east along the battlements to the Bassin des Chasses, with their scout platoon (2/Lieut. Rolt) from there to the sea, but this platoon was kept as a reserve under the C.O.'s hand. Both companies had an uncomfortably long frontage, and 2/Lieut. F. T. F. C. G. Fletcher's platoon of " B " Company (about half strength only) and later Willy Welch's platoon also were sent to Peter Peel.
Headquarters and the remaining two platoons of "B" Company were held in reserve near a large heavily bombed building south of the quays, known as the Cellulose Factory. " C" Company (Major V. C. Knollys) were still digging in on the dunes, held in reserve, while Major H. Coghill, with H.Q. Comp any, was never required to leave his original position to the east of the harbour entrance throughout the battle.
Before midday on the 24th the 30th Brigade was clearly involved in phase three referred to above; that is, in a desperate attempt to defend the town and harbour of Calais. To do this, Brigadier Nicholson had few troops and all too little material. There was no artillery. Some execution had been done the previous evening and earlier this day by French shore artillery turned inland, but the personnel manning these weapons had put them out of action and departed to sea in a fleet of tugs before midday. A detachment of an anti-tank unit under an R.A. officer had arrived with eight 2-pounder anti-tank guns. These were all out of action by the afternoon of the 25th.
The 1st Rifle Brigade had two or three 3 -inch mortars, and the 60th presumably one per company. A few anti-tank mines were landed by the Royal Navy and distributed by 2/Lieut. A. G. H. Bampfylde equally between the two regiments' fronts on a lorry drive which he must have found somewhat hectic. For the rest, apart from the machine guns in the few tanks left, and two Vickers brought by the Royal Marines, reliance had to be placed on Bren guns, Boys anti-tank rifles and the rifle.
Large numbers of troops continued to make their way into Calais on the 24th from L. of C. bombed-out A.A. and searchlight positions, R.A.S.C. units, etc., but the large majority of these were unarmed except for revolvers. Useful work was, however, done by many in the heavy fighting to come. It was clear that demolition material was of the first importance, for Calais was intersected by canals which in those days made excellent anti-tank obstacles if the bridges could be destroyed or well blocked.
It had been arranged that demolition would be the responsibility of the French, with the exception of the docks area, for which the Royal Navy were to make arrangements. The French had no material, and no demolitions were in the event carried out. Most of the many bridges were, of course, of heavy masonry and considerable size, and the plan advanced by the French commander at the Citadel for attempting their destruction by placing under them some prodigious shells, which he said existed in his store, and having them fired in some mysterious way by officers prepared to sacrifice themselves pour la patrie , was adjudged to be at that stage of the battle impracticable.
H.M.S. Wolfhound tied up to the outer jetty during the early afternoon with a view to spotting for some destroyers which were engaging German batteries on the coast between Boulogne and Calais. At least one such battery was put out of action. The C.O. went aboard with the Adjutant (Lieut. T. H. Acton) to ask for demolition material, and was offered the ship's complement of gun-cotton, with any other assistance the Captain could give.Unfortunately, so many urgent calls on the C.O.'s attention intervened then and for the rest of the day that the matter was not pursued. H.M.S. Wolfhound remained until the evening, several times coming into action against attacking enemy aircraft.
At about 1800hrs an M.T.B. brought the P.S.T.O., Channel Ports, a Commodore, who once more took over naval control of the docks, and, having brought the necessary primers, waited for the naval demolition party to return. Now a swing bridge over the docks was prepared for demolition, and the party return ed home, the Commodore himself remaining until the 26th. During the afternoon the enemy attacks on the 60th's front had intensified to such a degree that Lieut.-Colonel Hoskyns deemed it necessary on several occasions to send assistance from his reserves.
Gordon-Duff took a platoon of spare drivers with which he held a section of the 60th's front, being about the last to be withdrawn from the outer perimeter at dark.
At 1600 hrs. Hamilton-Russell, with No. 8 Platoon (P.S.M. Easen) and half his scout platoon, was sent in trucks through " I " Company's position into the town to support the 60th and the Queen Victoria's Rifles. There was sniping by fifth columnists in " I " Company's area at this time, and a part of Brigade Headquarters withdrew past the Mairie to its new location at the Gare Maritime. At about 1600 hrs. also Tony Rolt received an order through the Intelligence Officer to take his mortar section and No. 11 Platoon, " C " Company (P.S.M. Criss), to the 60th's area. There he was to get into touch with the C.O. of the 60th (whose headquarters were not known to the 1st Rifle Brigade) and put down mortar fire on an area of the Rue Gambetta which 2/Lieut. Price showed him on the map. On passing through No. 15 Platoon, Rolt was told that enemy tanks were already in the 60th's area, and that he was likely to meet them at any moment.
All parties of 60th and Queen Victoria's Rifles met confirmed that the enemy had got a footing in the town. After reconnaissance the area indicated was plastered with thirty bombs at long range from the gardens near the Mairie Square. This somewhat doubtful, shoot actually helped a party of Queen Victoria's Rifles according to information given later to Tony Rolt by an officer who was present. However, he rightly decided to use no more ammunition and withdrew to report to the C.O. Hamilton-Russell returned through " I " Company at a bout 1730 hrs. to the road block near the Cellulose Factory.
His company (" B ") still had two platoons (Nos. 6 and 7) detached and was destined to remain so for the remainder of the battle. At 1900 hrs. these platoons were both in position with " A" Company, and at about the same time No. 12 Platoon, " C " Company (2/Lieut. Fellows), and No. 11 Platoon, " C " Company (P.S.M. Criss), were sent to reinforce " I " Company. Both these platoons were placed by Major E. J. A. H. Brush in reserve about 200 yards in rear of No. 16 Platoon on the transverse road (and yet they were in a front-line position, as the Battalion was forward of the 60th's line here from now onwards).
The 60th were fighting in the Rue Gambetta, about 300 yards south -west of " I" Company, while withdrawals from the battlements south-west and south of the town were taking place. The Queen Victoria's Rifles, less two companies, were withdrawing to the neighbourhood of Headquarters, Rifle Brigade, and the 60th (the majority of whose retirements did not take place until dusk) were brought back to the shorter line in the old town ordered by the Brigadier.
By 2100 hrs. the new positions were taken up, leaving, as arranged, " I " Company, Rifle Brigade, in a forward salient with the nearest 60th post in view of No. 15 Platoon bridge overlooking the Hotel de Ville. At midnight enemy activity in the town ceased, apart from isolated bombing and shelling, the Rifle Brigade Headquarters having some close "overs" of heavy stuff which fell in the Bassin near by at about 0100 hrs on the 25th.
Friday, the 24th, had been a day of great tension. At about 1900 hrs the C.O. sent a message to companies that positions then occupied were to be held to the last man and the last round. Apart from enemy action, the general confusion as to the situation, the fantastic stories put about by enemy agents (in a let ter to the Colonel-in-Chief from hospital in England, Lieut.-Colonel Hoskyns drew particular attention to the effect of the so-called fifth column activities on this and the next day), and the fact that no commander ever had a moment from the time of landing to look around him and think and plan for more than the immediate future, all tended to intensify fatigue.Nobody had slept except for a few hours on the ships, or ceased to work hard since the morning of Tuesday, the 21st.
The 1st Rifle Brigade " stood to " at 0330 hrs. on Saturday, 25th May. After the successful repulse of the enemy on Friday, and the lull during the hours of darkness, Brigadier Nicholson asked the 60th and the Rifle Brigade whether there were signs of enemy withdrawal. Brush reported that he had himself patrolled the Rue Gambetta from 0530 hrs. in a car and discovered no sign of the enemy.
Peel reported little activity on the eastern face, and the 60th re-ported similarly. Sundry forward moves were ordered by the Brigadier, but these soon met German anti-tank guns and infantry. Advance Brigade Headquarters had left the Gare Maritime for the Citadel with a view to close Liaison with the French commander there at 0600 hrs. At 0700 hrs. Germans were reported by "I" Company in the Rue Gambetta. Sniping began from the western side of the canal, and a bombardment of "A" Company's position also took place at about this time, as well as a certain amount of small-arms fire from the woods to its front, coupled with fifth column sniping from the houses behind them.
Rolt's 3-inch mortar (Cpl. Blackman) engaged Germans in the Rue Gambetta at 0745 hrs. from No. 11 Platoon's position. At 0800 hrs. Peter Brush was shot through the throat by a sniper, but refused to leave his headquarters. At 0830 hrs a German tactical reconnaissance plane flew along "I" Company's positions and indicated them to their artillery by a line of smoke. At 0930 hrs the enemy strafe came down with accuracy. At 1000 hrs John Taylor arrived with orders to send Brush to the R.A.P. and to take over his command.
All positions were now under intense fire, except the north eastern portion of the defences, from which the company of Queen Victoria's Rifles extending "A" Company's left nevertheless reported observations of considerable enemy movement.
Throughout the remainder of the morning enemy pressure was very strong at the southern face, and 2/Lieut. C. J. J. Clay (Liaison Officer, 30th Brigade) took a situation report to the Citadel at about 1130 hrs with a map marked by the C.O. Apparently a German W /T message was intercepted by the French indicating that if the attacks now being launched failed they proposed to attack heavily on their left, i.e., the 60th's right.
The Brigadier decided to attempt a diversion in rear of the enemy from the Rifle Brigade's left, and at 1300 hrs. 2/Lieut. CIay returned with Colonel Holland (formerly Base Commandant) with duplicate orders to Lieut.-Colonel Hoskyns to take a mobile column all A.F.Vs.(tanks and carriers) and at least two motor platoons the perimeter east of the Bassin des Chasses, and to sweep round to attack the enemy's right rear in order to relieve pressure on the 60th. All reserves had become involved from the previous day with the exception of Headquarters and two platoons of “C “Company.” I " Company relied particularly on their three carriers and Cpl. Blackman's mortar section of Rolt's carrier platoon to cover bridges on their extended front, and both these and "A" Company's bridges were now in momentary danger of being forced.
The C.O. made a formal and energetic protest, which was rejected by Colonel Holland, and preparation for collecting the necessary troops was put in hand. Lieut-Colonel Hoskyns stated that he would try to start at 1430 hrs. The Adjutant, having written the necessary messages, made a personal reconnaissance of the route along the southern edge of the Bassin des Chasses, and, finding it impracticable, returned to report and to get the vehicles, now collected, turned round and in order (for the only other way out was by the sand dunes and beach), a very difficult task on the narrow road past the railway yards which was all this time under heavy fire.
At this time, Tony Rolt, while engaged in collecting 2/Lieut. Sanderson and his carriers from " I " Company's line, became involved in the streets behind the main positions with enemy infantry who had infiltrated. Meeting three light tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, he led them with his carriers in a successful counter-drive to clear the streets, inflicting several casualties and finding particularly good targets down the streets across the canal to the west of David Fellowes's house and south of the 60th's left. Jerry Duncanson shot down a German reconnaissance plane with a Bren gun in "A" Company's area.
Meanwhile, the C.O. had already sent Knollys with " C " Company (less two platoons) on foot along the dunes to the eastern end of the Bassin, but now, realizing the practical impossibility of taking wheeled vehicles through the heavy sand, he at last succeeded in getting through to Brigade by wireless and receiving Brigadier Nicholson's permission to cancel the column.
The leading tanks and carriers had already started, and were in trouble in the sand. Where possible the return of troops to their previous locations began, but the damage was already done when the defence was weakened by the collection of the column and the C.O.'s attention distracted from fighting his comma nd, and Battalion Headquarters never really assembled and functioned as such again.
Indeed, before the C.O. left finally to start the movement (taking practically all Battalion Headquarters with him) he had already received reports that breaches had been made in the front line and left the Second-in-Command to organize another position through "B" Company's main road block. This was accomplished, the troops used being headquarters of "B" Company with one Bren-gun section; Headquarters and one company of the Queen Victoria's Rifles; the remains of an A.A. battery half armed with rifles; about thirty men of a searchlight battery; a nd Rear Brigade Headquarters.
The enemy had by 1500 hrs succeeded in breaking through the forward positions in two places and, working through the streets, in getting round the back of Company Headquarters and platoons holding the front line. Desperate close fighting took place, during which John Taylor was severely wounded and David Sladen killed while attacking the enemy in one of the many small counter actions which took place. The second-in-command of " I " Company, 2/Lieut. A. J. B. Van der Weyer, was eventually killed defending the point of junction with the 60th, where P.S.M. Williams had already lost his life and 2/Lieut.Thomas was killed in circumstances not known.
Small detachments continued to defend houses in this area after being surrounded, and P.S.M. Stevens (No. 16 Platoon) with some sixteen men of "I" and "C" Companies, having fought until all their ammunition was exhausted, hid in the houses round their positions for fourteen days before starvation forced them to surrender. Few of “I " Company and the two platoons of "C" Company attacked were extricated from this imbroglio in spite of a determined effort on the part of Brush, who had left the R.A.P. and had received the C.O.'s permission to attempt to retrieve the situation on his company's front with the assistance of Lieut. Bird's platoon of "B" Company (now returned from the cancelled column) and the remaining tanks.
None of the latter were, however, made available, and the small party were brought to a stop a short distance beyond “B“ Company’s block by intensive light automatic fire. While trying to deal with this, a French campion appeared full of wounded men belonging to "I" Company in charge of Cpl. Lane, and driven by a fifth columnist at the point of the revolver. In spite of being waved on, the driver stopped under fire, and while the wounded who could were getting out to try to crawl across the road, Edward Bird ran forward, climbed into the driver's seat, and endeavoured to restart the lorry. In this gallant effort he was shot in the head, dying soon afterwards.
After this, Peter Brush, having only a handful of No. 5 Platoon unwounded men left, was forced to abandon the attempt to reach the original company area. “ A " Company, although suffering many casualties, was still fairly intact and was fighting the enemy on three sides of it; P.S.M. John-stone being killed at the road block formed to protect the rear of Peter Peel's headquarters. But the two attached platoons of “B " Company were overwhelmed by enemy tanks on this evening while attempting a flanking movement to retake the bridge which had been lost at the junction of " I" and " A " Companies' front. Willy Welch was killed in circumstances not yet known during this counter-attack.
At about 1530 hrs a shell had landed in one of H.Q. Company's trenches where the C.O. was with Coghill and Taylor, who had been brought there. Taylor was again wounded, as was C.Q.M.S. Clifton, by the same shell, and Chan Hoskyns received such severe wounds that he subsequently died in England . A young D.R. reported to the Second-in-Command, near the Cellulose Factory, that the C.O. was killed, and Brush and Acton "blown to bits."
The Second-in-Command duly reported to Brigade that he had taken over, and in time he, Hamilton- Russell and Brush became aware of each other's presence; each having received false reports that the others were casualties and believing himself to be the senior officer left. This was a critical moment in the battle. Between 1530 and 1630 hrs Rolt's carrier platoon (dismounted after the cancellation of the column) was now remounted and sent by the acting C.O. on a foray into the old town across the Place de 1'Europe as a result of reports that enemy tanks had broken in and the danger of a break-through between the two regiments.
At about 1630 hrs the bombardment intensified upon the whole Brigade's position, and soon the Citadel was a vast sheet of flame. From this time Advanced Brigade Headquarters were out of touch on W/ T. While Tony Roll was away, Hamilton-Russell reported with a well worked out scheme for ordering and covering the withdrawal of " A " Company, the company the Queen Victoria's Rifles extending " A" Company's left, and as many elements of "1"and "C" Companies' platoons as possible to a shorter line behind the Cellulose Factory.
He already had arrangements in hand at his headquarters, and the acting C.O. now approved the plan and ordered Hamilton-Russell to take charge of this operation, while he himself dealt with the point of pressure at the junction with the 60th and O.C. "B" Company's right flank. Subsequently, withdrawal proceeded with little interference from the enemy, Capt. Smiley directing platoons to their new positions as they came back. The Queen Victoria's Rifles reported that they would not be able to get all their men in before dark, and in fact some elements did cross the canal in the wrong direction, and, becoming involved with the Germans on the dunes to the east, were not recovered.
2/ Lieut. Hon. T. C. F. Prittie came back via the beach with a few men of "A" Company and, reporting to Duncanson with H.Q. Company, was ordered to join Surtees in "C" Company's old trenches. Surtees, after his carriers had become stuck in the sand, had been informed of the cancellation of the column during the evening by Acton, who was not, however, able to retrieve the rest of Knollys's command from the dunes east of the Bassin, where the C.O. had sent them early in the afternoon.
Knollys, joined by some Queen Victoria's Rifles from the eastern perimeter referred to above, had moved to positions farther east for the night. On the following morning he engaged the enemy, who had A.F.Vs. in this area, for some hours before being surrounded and overwhelmed. During this action 2 Lieut. G. J. Kane carried out a most successful fighting patrol amongst the sand hills, in which he, with Rfn. Eagle as his second-in-command destroyed three enemy L.A. sections. Kane, when disarming a fourth with an empty revolver, was severely wounded by a G e r m a n N.C.O. who appeared from behind a knoll at the wrong moment.
At about 1700 hrs the acting C.O., who had failed to speak to the Brigadier, did succeed in speaking to Lieut.-Colonel Miller (O.C. 60th) and ascertained that he was being very hard pressed everywhere, and was still very nervous about his right flank. Not long after this enemy aircraft dropped showers of leaflets on and around the Gare Maritime giving an hour's grace for surrender, from 1800 to 1900 hrs. In the hot weather of these days and the dust and grime of battle drinking water was of importance, and trouble was caused from Saturday onwards by damage to the mains in the town and Gare Maritime area, but this difficulty was overcome by recourse to wells which were found and by constantly repairing main supplies. Water had to be carried for some distance to sand-dune positions.
As on previous nights, enemy activity died down at dark and the Battalion, now settled in its new positions for the night, breathed again. Enemy attacks had all but succeeded this evening, and great credit is due to the 60th for their magnificent defence of the Old Town. Hoskyns and Taylor were found in the R.A.P. at the station; both in a bad way, but the former expressed his delight at the way in which the enemy had been held off. It is difficult to write more of this fine officer who had now seen the last of the Battalion he had loved and commanded so well. Taylor, who had been a tower of strength throughout, was a grave loss to the Battalion at this time. Though damaged beyond complete repair, he fortunately recovered enough to do much more for the Regiment during the war.
At about 2330 hrs W/T communication with the 60th was again got with difficulty, for many batteries were now low. Lieut.-Colonel Miller had gone to the Citadel to find the Brigadier, whose fate had not been known for some time. The Brigadier, however, at this moment arrived at the station yard and expressed himself in most complimentary terms on the Battalion's efforts.
He then received the C.O.'s rather meagre reports (for patrols sent out to locate troops beyond the Bassin and on the beach were not yet back) and approved his proposed dispositions for the following day. The Brigadier now gave the latest order from home that Calais was to be held to the last, and this was duly repeated during the night to responsible commanders.
He then asked if the C.O. considered it possible, in the event of the 1st Rifle Brigade and other troops in the vicinity being heavily attacked, to withdraw them all into the town and make, with the 60th, an all-round defensive ring to include the Citadel. The C.O. replied that he did not think so, and the Brigadier agreed that it would be most difficult, especially in view of the failure so far to locate the remnants of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, " C " Company, Rifle Brigade (less two platoons), and some of the Queen Victoria's Rifles. Permission was given to wireless for a hospital ship, and this was done by the Commodore, R.N., later in the night. The Brigadier wished the Battalion luck and said good-night, returning to the Citadel. No further order was received from Brigade, except for a repetition of the Government and War Office message to hold to the last, brought by Colonel Holland the next morning.
At dawn a small yacht took off Hoskyns, Taylor and other wounded from the R.A.P. on the quay, where Surgeon Lieut. Waind, R.N., had done wonderful work, and was to do more on the 26th when he was the only medical officer present. The R.A.P. in the tunnel was shared by Capt. Cameron, R.A.M.C., the Rifle Brigade Medical Officer, and Lieut. Gartside, M.O. of the Queen Victoria's Rifles, helped by the two Padres, Wingfield-Digby and Heard.
Here they had been intensely busy for two days. All their efforts deserve the highest praise. Unfortunately, this R.A.P. had been moved, together with its patients, by order of an officer of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment urgently expressed, along the beach during the afternoon without the knowledge of the respective C.Os of the Rifle Brigade and the Queen Victoria's Rifles.
During Saturday the 1st Rifle Brigade had used all its ammunition, including reserves, and had issued 20,000 rounds more brought by the Royal Navy, most of which had been used up. There was, besides, a grave shortage of weapons available for the next day's battle, a short-age more serious than man power, which in itself, so far as the Battalion was concerned, was now serious. Expectations of an enemy dawn attack on the 26th were fortunately not realized. Apparently the two defeats suffered by the enemy on the Friday and Saturday imposed on the enemy Corps Commander such caution that he decided to relieve his forward troops (probably for the second time) and stage a new full-dress attack with more extensive artillery preparation, continuous dive-bombing attacks and heavy mortar and machine-gun support—certainly a compliment to the tired defenders.
Subsequent accounts of German origin made much of the resources called upon. Artillery of a complete corps was stated to have been in action since early on the 24th, and a lot was made of the fine supply effort which replaced their ammunition expenditure. In consequence of this extended preparation, some measure of reorganization was possible on the Rifle Brigade fronts.
New forward positions on either side of the Bassin des Chasses were manned by the least tired of the troops avail-able, with as much advantage taken of cross-fire positions as possible. Bren guns were very short, and though thoroughly cleaned during the hours of darkness became, like the rifles, badly clogged with sand in the positions held on this side of Calais, and many excellent targets must have been inadequately dealt with on this account during Sunday's fighting while weapons were recleaned again and again.
Ammunition, however, was now so short that few rounds can have been wasted; and the capable efforts of R.S.M. Goodey and Sergts. Phillips and Welch, of the new skeleton Headquarters formed, eked out what was left for replenishment to the best effect. The last 3-inch mortar rounds were fired during the morning with accurate results by Sandy Sanderson, who had, with Cpl. Morton, already done good execution with a salvaged machine gun.
There were no other weapons to use. It can be stated with some pride that the heavy German strafing preparation referred to above had the minimum effect on the riflemen, who fired from their exposed positions at the attacking Stukas as coolly as participants in a pheasant shoot. That some positions became, as the day drew on, untenable goes without saying, but on no occasion was a withdrawal made of more than a few yards, and more than once the original position was retaken.
The spaces between the portions of the defence on the Battalion's front entailed great difficulty of control and communication, and distances between sub-units were greatly increased by battle obstacles. In this kind of fighting a man often knows nothing of what is occurring within ten yards of him. Smoke, fires, dust and falling masonry; line after line of railway track holding scores of goods wagons and other rolling stock; thin but high cement walls; heavy sand on the dunes and bunds—made movement as fatiguing as observation was difficult. In spite of all this, the defence, by no means badly damaged or deterred by the preparatory bombardments, continued throughout the morning to hold the enemy's attack, which was now being pressed very strongly at all points; but from about 1300 hrs onwards the situation deteriorated. Accurate German heavy mortar fire was mainly responsible for helping on their infantry.
It had been hoped that these and other enemy support weapons might be dealt with by naval bombardment and this had been asked for at 1045 hrs on the 26th in the last message ever sent over the air from the Gare Maritime. Targets considered easily recognizable were indicated as well as a clear line beyond which it was safe to shoot. In the evening an effective bombardment was in fact carried out by the Royal Navy on this line, but it was by then too late.
Lieut. Millet, of the Royal Corps of Signals, who, with his section of Brigade Headquarters Signals, had been of inestimable value throughout, was o r d e r e d to be prepared to destroy all W/T installations and files early in the afternoon. Later this was done for him, before the final order given, by enemy mortar fire, all vehicles of value in the station yards being burned out. By 1630hrs or thereabouts the last rounds were fired, and all organized resistance ceased. The enemy infantry had indeed treated the exhausted defenders with respect and taken their time in coming to grips. This they eventually did at all points simulta neously, from the 60th's right, into the Citadel itself, and all along the circle of attack to the beaches in the rear of the Rifle Brigade positions. Men of the Rifle Brigade were shot from across the harbour mouth at the end.
Much more could be written of the fighting on this Last day; of the tough resistance put up on the right by Rolt's scout platoon, P.S.M. Easen's platoon, of " B " Company (he later died of wounds) and others; of Arthur Hamilton-Russell, mortally wounded in an attempt to gain observation from the most exposed point near him, after as hard a four days' fighting and work as ever a soldier did; of Tony Rolt's final gallant effort, almost alone, to seize a possible point of vantage; of the accurate fire still being directed from the French shore battery emplacement by men of " A" Company, Royal Marines and others, including Major Coxwell Rogers, the Staff Captain, who was killed here while firing a Bren gun at Germans on the beach behind this position; of the hours of steady and accurate shooting put in by Peter Brush's command based on Surtee's trenches on the sand-dunes, where Rfn. Gurr (one of the Battalion's best Bisley shots) got badly wounded in the leg he was to lose; Sergt. Welsh, shot through the jaw, Rfn. Murphy, who had found and got into working order a Lewis gun; David Fellowes, of " C " Company, with a large hole in his head from the fighting in " I " Company's area the day before; Peter Peel and John Surtees, both wounded, and Brush wounded again, with Forrester, Price and a few other riflemen sniped and hit (for that was all that was now possible) to the end—until Jerry Duncanson, who had never for a moment ceased to chivvy the enemy at every possible opportunity, and who had enjoyed every moment of it, stood up to kill the last German to be shot in this area, and inevitably received his mortal wound.
But it is surely to dwell upon individual efforts when all did their utmost. Of those who died, although the deeds of some are yet know in full, it would be impossible to write too much. They will be remembered. Of those who survived a great number were wounded, most of whom had to recover as best they could in German hands. If all ranks of the 1st Battalion who had reached by keenness and hard work such a high standard of training for mobile warfare with armoured divisions, were disappointed of their fun in a war of movement, they at least still enjoyed the excitements of the early days of this action, and in the grim realities of the last days took pride in their discipline and fighting qualities as Riflemen under any conditions of war. It would not be easy to find any who regret the days of Calais.
The recently awarded decorations to the Regiment for the Defence of Calais were: D.S.O., 2; M.C., 4; D.C.M., 2; M.M., 7; Mention in Despatches, 32.
The Green Jacket Memorial at Calais is positioned on the starboard side when entering Calais Harbour. The memorial commemorates those who gave up their lives, also those who fought in the Defence of Calais from 1st Battalion The Rifle Brigade, 2nd Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps and 1st Battalion Queen Victoria’s Rifles, during the period 23-26 May 1940. Also honoured at the Annual Memorial Service are those who fought alongside the Green Jacket battalions namely, 3rd Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment, the survivors of an Anti-Aircraft Battery, small detachments of the R.A.S.C., R.A.O.C., and Military Police, Doctors and Padres, gallant men of the French Garrison and those who ran great risks to help on the sea and in the air.
Those of The Rifle Brigade who were killed or died through wounds during the Defence of Calais are show below. Many others died as prisoners of war.
CALAIS SOUTHERN CEMETERY - Pas de Calais
BILLING HAM, Rifleman, JOHN EDWARD, 6912383, Plot J Grave 15 25th May 1940
COT TELL, Rifleman, JACK WINSTON, 6911801, Plot J Grave 13 26th May 1940
CROSS, Lance Corporal, GILBERT DAVID, 6912077, Plot 0 Grave 8 24th May 1940
CUMBERS, Sergeant, LEONARD FENN, 6911461, Plot 0 Grave 12 25th May 1940
DIXON, Rifleman, BRYAN DOUGLAS VERNON, 6912336, Plot 0 Grave 7 24th May 1940
DUNCANSON, Lieutenant, JEROME PENDER, 55992, Plot N Grave 10 28th May 1940
DUNGAY, Lance Corporal, HERBERT JAMES, 6912760, Plot 0 Grave 21 24th May 1940
ELLISON, Rifleman, HAYDN, 6913500, Plot K Grave 5 23rd-26th May 1940
FAWCETT, Rifleman, FREDERICK JOHN, 765452, Plot L Grave 2 27th May 1940
FOLEY, Rifleman, JOHN BERNARD, 6967972, Plot K Grave 4 25th May 1940
GAFFEY, Rifleman, HERBERT, 6913575, Plot N Grave 31 23rd-26th May 1940
HOCKLEY, Rifleman, EDWARD BERTRAM, 6914457, Plot N Grave 1 128th May 1940
JEBB, Rifleman, LESLIE, 6914206, Plot M Grave 24 25th May 1940
JOHNSON, Rifleman, FRANK, 6911951, Plot N Grave 2 25th May 1940
JOHNSTON, Rifleman, STANLEY CHARLES, 6913246, Plot M Grave 1 25th May 1940
JOLLIFFE, Rifleman, FRANCIS MACDONALD, 6912926, Plot L Grave 23 25th May 1940
LEWIS, Rifleman, William Edward, 6912039, Plot P Grave 3 26th May 1940
LINCOLN, Bugler, JOHN, 6912055, Plot J Grave 22 25th May 1940
LITTLECHILD, Corporal, STANLEY RICHARD, 6912100, Plot M Grave 2 25th May 1940
MEDHURST, Rifleman, FREDERICK NEAL, 6912041, Plot P Grave 6 23rd May 1940
MOSS, Sergeant, JOHN WALLIS, 6913159, Plot L Grave 24 25th May 1940
PACE, Rifleman, THOMAS HAROLD, 6912094, Plot P Grave 2 25th May 1940
PALMER, Rifleman, VICTOR HERBERT, 69I4486, Plot M Grave 3 25th May 1940
ROWLING, Corporal, CECIL, 6912914, Plot N Grave 4 25th May 1940
SLADEN, Second Lieutenant, DAVID RAMSAY, 77698, Plot L Grave 1 26th May 1940
THOMAS, Second Lieutenant, GEORGE AMBLER, 117303, Plot N Grave 3 26th May 1940
THOMPSON, Rifleman, CHARLES CHRISTOPHER, 6911010, Plot N Grave 1 25th May 1940
VAN DE WEYER, Second Lieutenant, ADRIAN JOHN BATES, 89505, Plot K Grave 2 26th May 1940
VINE, Rifleman, EDWARD WILLIAM, 6912496, Plot K Grave 24 25th May 1940
WELCH, Lieutenant, WILLIAM MARK, 58854, Plot M Grave 5 25th May 1940
WILLIAMS, Platoon Sergeant Major (WOIII), IVAN JOHN, 6908671, Plot N Grave 5 26th May 1940
GUEMPS CHURCHYARD - Pas de Calais
LUCHFORD, L/Sergeant, STANLEY HAROLD, 6911832, Grave 4 26th May 1940
LILLE SOUTHERN CEMETERY
HUMPHERY, Lieutenant E.A.M., 57380, Plot 5 Row C Grave 31 25th-28th May 1940
LONGUENESSE (St OMER) SOUVENIR CEMETERY
JONES, Rifleman, OWEN GLYIN, 6912340, Plot 9 Row C Grave 10 23rd May 1940 NALLY, Rifleman, SIDNEY THOMAS, 6910515, Plot 9 Row B Grave 10 23rd May 1940 RICHARDSON, Rifleman, DAVID, 4264909, Plot 9 Row R Grave 2 23rd May 1940 UNDERWOOD, Rifleman, ARTHUR, 6912341, Plot 9 Row B Grave 3 23rd May 1940
DUNKIRK MEMORIAL - Nord
BACON, Rifleman, ERNEST BENJAMIN, 6914120, Column 13126th May 1940
BIRD, Second Lieutenant, EDWARD ARTHUR, 72963, Column 130 25th May 1940
BLAND, Rifleman, ROBERT HENRY, 6912156, Column 131 23rd-26th May 1940
BOWLEY, Rifleman JACK CHARLES, 6913263, Column 131 26th May 1940
BROWN, Rifleman, ERNEST WALTER, 6139230, Column 131 24th May 1940
BRYCE, Rifleman, MARK, 6911962, Column 131 24th May 1940
CHALMERS, Rifleman, JAMES CHARLES, 6914450, Column 131 26th May 1940
CLEMENTS, Rifleman, GEORGE JAMES, 6910840, Column 131 28th May-2nd June 1940
COOPER, Rifleman, WILFRED WALTER, 6914100, Column 131 25th-26th May 1940 EASEN, Warrant Officer, JAMES MM, 6908637, Column 130 26th May 1940
EDGAR, Rifleman, ALBERT, 6911677, Column 131 29th May 1940
FRAZER, Rifleman, DAVID, 6911189, Column 131 22nd May 1940
HAMBLIN, Rifleman, JOSEPH, 6912019, Column 131 23rd May 1940 JOHNSTON, Platoon Sergeant Major (WO1) RICHARD ALINGTON VERNON, 6792048, Column130 25th May 1940
KELLY, Lance Corporal, JOHN DEWHURST, 6913961, Column 131 26th May 1940
LACK, Rifleman, THOMAS ARTHUR, 6912172, Column 131 12th April 1945
MILLER, Rifleman, CHARLES DAVID, 6913892, Column 131 26th May 1940
NICHOLSON, Rifleman, HENRY, 6914194, Column 131 26th May 1940
NICHOLSON, Rifleman, HAROLD, 4446029, Column 131 26th May 1940
NISBET, Rifleman, WILLIAM SUTHERLAND, 6912920, Column 131 23rd September 1940
PEDLEHAM, Rifleman, FREDERICK, 69107900, Column 131 29th May 1940
PHILLIPS (see SCHAFFNER below)
PIGGOTT, Bugler, JOHN RAYMOND, 6913721, Column 131 16th April 1945
PROUD, Rifleman, SIDNEY, 6911069, Column 131 29th May 1940
RADWELL, Sergeant, DONALD ALEXANDER, 834251, Column 131 26th May 1940
RANDALL, Rifleman, HORACE HECTOR, 6914104, Column 131 4th September 1940
REES, Rifleman, COLIN BERTRAM, 6913267, Column 131 29th January 1945
SCHAFFNER (PHILLIPS), Lance Corporal, ERNEST, 6913861, Column 131 25th-26th May 1940
SIMS, Sergeant, SIDNEY JOHN, 6909290, Column 131 25th-26th May 1940
SQUIBB, Rifleman, WILLIAM JOHN, 6912683, Column 131 26th May 1940
WARNER, Rifleman, ALBERT FRANK, 6912600, Column 131 25th May 1940
WARWICK, Lance Corporal, BENJAMIN WILLIAM, 6912293, Column 131 25th May 1940
WILLIAMSON, Rifleman, HERBERT GEORGE, 6911779, Column 131 25th May 1940
WIRTZ, Rifleman, ALFRED JAMES, 6912467, Column 131 19th February 1945
WOOD, Corporal, WILLIAM HERBERT, 6910017, Column 131 8th February 1945
WOOLFENDEN, Rifleman, JACK, 6912405, Column 131 26th May 1940
MARCK CHURCHYARD - Pas de Calais
PLAMER, Rifleman, WALTER ALBERT, 6914181, 22 May-4th Jun 1940
CRACOW RACKOWICKI CEMETERY: POLAND
BLYTHE, Rifleman, JOHN EDWARD, 6912597, Plot 5 Row D Grave 7 12th December 1940
UNITED KINGDOM BURWARTON (St LAWRENCE) CHURCHYARD
HAMILTON-RUSSELL, Major A.G.L., 22399, North Part 26th May 1940
CHILWORTH CHURCHYARD HOSKYNS
Lieutenant Colonel C.B.A., 9657, New Part 18th June 1940
El Alamein and Snipe
An article by Brigadier C.C. Dunphie, M.C., of The Rifle Brigade and The Royal Green Jackets.
To understand the story of Alamein, you need to go back two years – to the fall of France in June 1940.This left Italy as the only Mediterranean Power, and she decided to flex her muscles. In September, with 250,000 men in Libya facing just 60,000 men of the British Western Desert Force in Egypt, the Italians advanced 60 miles into Egypt, to Sidi Barrani, where they halted and set up fortified camps.
From September to December the Italians did little – the British patrolled extensively. For example, two patrols led by Lt Charles Liddell (who some may remember as CO 8RB at the end of the war, later Training Company Commander at the Rifle Depot in the early 50s and 2ic of 1RB to Paddy Boden in Malaya), with Cpls Brown and Field, identified gaps in the Italian defences.
It was through these gaps that in December 1940 Gen O’Connor launched an offensive which drove the Italians back over the frontier, on West past Tobruk and Benghazi, then on, following the coast road, South. While the bulk of the Army pursued the Italians along the coast road, 7th Armoured Division, and in particular an advance element of 11Hussars, 2RB and an RHA Regiment, sped across the desert to cut off the Italian withdrawal South of Benghazi.
The retreating Italians were astounded to find their way blocked by 2RB at Sidi Saleh. In vain they tried to break through, and when the rest of 7th Armoured Division arrived and struck them in the flank further North at Beda Fomm, this was too much for them – 20,000 men and over 120 tanks surrendered. Man of the Match was undoubtedly A Company Commander 2RB, a certain Capt Tom Pearson, whose company, astride the road, withstood everything that the entire Italian Army could throw at them. He was to be awarded his first DSO – and how proud we all were to march past Gen Tom at St Cross on that splendid Bicentenary Day, in 2000. Our senior Rfn today, he is a sprightly 96 year old.
RDC Note: Born 1July 1914
The advance was halted on 7th February 1941 at El Agheila, partly because a rapid advance of 500 miles in just a few weeks had extended the logistic chain almost to breaking point, and partly because much of the force was suddenly despatched to Greece – a crazy escapade, destined to certain failure, and it did.
Mid February saw the arrival of a significant new-comer – one Gen Erwin Rommel, and his Afrika Korps. By the end of March he was ready, and launched an attack against the weakened Western Desert Force. Rommel drove the British east, past Tobruk, which he invested but could not take, and, by mid April, to the line of the Egyptian/Libyan border, south of Bardia. Having defeated two British offensives in May and June, he pushed on again, to the area of the Halfaya (Hellfire) Pass, where he halted - it was now Rommel’s turn to be logistically over-extended.
On 28th November the new C-in-C Middle East, Gen Auchinleck, launched a counter-attack, Op Crusader. Tobruk was relieved, and the pendulum swung right back across the desert to El Agheila again, by the end of December.
Rommel did not wait long. Having built up his resources, he attacked in late January 1942, and the pendulum swung yet again. In early February it halted, this time at Gazala, 30 miles west of Tobruk, where it seemed to hang for about three months.In May Rommel attacked again, and was held. But the British counter-attack was to prove perhaps Rommel’s greatest success. The tank battle in The Cauldron was one of the fiercest of the campaign. But despite having only 500 tanks to the 8th Army’s 700, better Generalship, better tactics and above all the 88mm gun were decisive, and once again the British were heading east. This time Tobruk fell, and the Germans pressed on, over the Egyptian border, and on for a further 200 miles, two-thirds of the way to Cairo, to a small unheard-of railway station called El Alamein.
In early August 1942 Churchill and the CIGS, Field Marshal Brooke, visited, and did not like what they saw. Auchinleck, who, having sacked two Army Commanders in short time was now commanding the 8th Army himself as well as being C-in-C, was sacked, Alexander was appointed C-in-C, and Gott, a much admired and respected 60th Rifleman, was appointed to command 8th Army. But Gott was killed, when the aircraft flying him back to take command, was shot down. Emerging from something of a crisis meeting, Brooke passed a note to his MA – just three words - ‘Send for Monty’.
It is worth considering briefly why El Alamein was selected as the stopping point. The reason is the ground. 40 miles South is the Qatara Depression, a sea of soft sand which was considered impassable to vehicles. The line between Alamein and Qatara was the narrowest gap between sand and sea, and therefore the easiest to defend. Rommel must break through this gap if he was to advance to the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal.
In early August 1942 there were three RB battalions in Egypt – 2 & 7RB, with 2KRRC in 7th Motor Brigade, commanded by Brig Jimmy Bosvile (recently CO 1RB), and 1RB in 22nd Armoured Brigade (in 7th Armoured Division), which was commanded by Brig Pip Roberts, arguably the finest armoured commander in the British Army in WW2, and lucky enough to have an RB battalion under his command for the rest of the war (1RB in 22nd Armoured Brigade; 10RB in 26th Armoured Brigade in the latter stages of the Tunisian campaign; and 8RB in his 11th Armoured Division in Normandy till the end of the war – no wonder he was successful!!). 9RBhad recently, and sadly, been disbanded.
On 31st August 1942 Rommel made what was to be his last thrust at the Delta. He employed his normal tactics – a feint in the North and a right-hook with his armour in the South. Unable completely to outflank the British position, this right-hook came up against 22nd Armoured Brigade on the Alam Halfa Ridge. In all the earlier battles British anti-tank tactics, probably reflecting the old cavalry doctrine, was to confront tanks with tanks. But at Alam Halfa Roberts employed the tactics which Rommel had used so successfully at Gazala – to use his tanks to draw the enemy onto a line of well-sited anti-tank guns, sited on the Alam Halfa Ridge.
There had recently been a significant change in the British armoury – the 2-pounder anti-tank gun had been replaced by the 6-pounder. The difference was that while the 2-pounder just ‘knocked on the door’ of the German tanks, the 6-pounder ‘opened that door’. It must have been incredibly frustrating, as well as distinctly alarming, for the British anti-tank gunners to watch their 2-pounder shells bouncing off the enemy tanks. At last they had an effective anti-tank weapon.
It was the 6-pounder anti-tank guns of 1RB, sited on the Alam Halfa ridge, plus of course the artillery, which were critical in bringing Rommel’s advance to a grinding halt. By 3rd September, having failed to break- through, Rommel had had enough and pulled his forces back. Realising that no further advance was possible, he now ordered an extensive minefield to be constructed, from the Qatara Depression to the sea. For the next six weeks this minefield was strengthened, to confront the offensive which he knew must come.
And so to Alamein. It is worth considering briefly its architect – General Montgomery. The complete opposite to the likes of Rommel and Patton, both charismatic leaders, always near the front, bashing their troops forward by sheer power of personality, Monty was the master of the carefully prepared battle – every detail meticulously thought through in advance. He refused to be rushed until he had every possible preparation made. He was the arch-professional, who had no interests other than studying the art of High Command. It was said that “Before battle he prayed; but in order not to test The Almighty too much, he always ensured that he had twice the number of Infantry and three times the number of tanks of his opponent!!”
Following the success of Alam Halfa he spent nearly two months building up his forces, preparing plans, stockpiling stores and training and resisting constant pressure from Churchill to attack - until he was ready. And by mid October he was ready. 8th Army, with 230,000 men, 1,000 tanks, a short L of C and air superiority, faced an over-extended Rommel with 100,000 men and 300 tanks.
The plan looked like this. First, XIII Corps, which included 7th Armoured Division (and, of course, 1RB), would launch a diversionary attack in the South. Then XXX Corps, which was mainly Infantry, would launch the main assault in the North. In what Monty described as ‘a crumbling attack’, it was to force its way through the German minefields, and secure certain key objectives beyond. Once XXX Corps had achieved this ‘break- in’, the tanks of X Corps would burst through, and strike fast and deep into and through the German/Italian positions. Fine in concept, but of course it didn’t quite work like that.
The battle started at 9pm on 23rd October 1942, with a massive artillery bombardment right along the entire front. The attack was launched as planned, but the Infantry battle in the North proved far harder than expected, largely because the Sappers, under constant heavy fire, had a desperately difficult job clearing lanes through the German minefields. For the first 48 hours of the battle, the task of the three Rifle Battalions of 7th Motor Brigade was protecting the mine-clearing parties, and traffic-control, for which, with a large number of vehicles and radios, they were well suited.
At midday on 25th October Cols Vic Turner and William Heathcote-Amory, of 2RB and 2KRRC, were summoned to Brigade HQ. They were ordered to capture Woodcock, the North-west spur of Kidney Ridge, a key feature on the far side of the German minefield. But during their recce it emerged that 51st Highland Division, had not yet secured their Start Line, so the attack was cancelled.
At 4pm next day, 26th October, the two colonels were again summoned to Brigade HQ. This time the plan was different. 2KRRC was to take Woodcock, and 2RB Snipe, the South-west spur of Kidney Ridge. 7RB was to be in reserve. Once taken Woodcock & Snipe were to be held. 2nd Armoured Brigade would then pass through 2KRRC, and 24th Armoured Brigade through 2RB, and drive fast and deep through the German positions – the break-out at last.
Colonel Vic Turner went forward to 51st Highland Division, to carry out his recce. Here, it quickly became clear that there was a serious difference of opinion between 1st Armoured Division and the Highlanders over map reading. They disagreed by an almost unbelievable 1,000 yards about where they were and where the objective was – not encouraging for a commanding officer about to launch an attack. Colonel Turner went to Brigade HQ to seek clarification.
Here he met not just Brig Bosvile, but also Gen Briggs, of 1st Armoured Division, Gen Wimberley of 51st Highland Division and X Corps Commander, Gen Lumsden. Briggs was adamant – he was right and the Jocks were wrong – his recce troops had proved it. But Wimberley was also adamant – he had walked every yard of the way and knew exactly where his troops were. The Corps Commander, a delightful cavalryman, took a relaxed view – “We could open a book on this.” The Gunner brigadier was equally relaxed – “Don’t worry, old boy, we’ll be laying on a heavy artillery bombardment”, to which an increasingly exasperated Colonel Turner replied, “That’s fine, but it is not going to help me much if it’s in the wrong place.” Ever the realist he said “I shall assume that 1st Armoured Division is right, but if that proves wrong, I shall march on the flank of the barrage.” How wise that turned out to be.
The colonel gave out his Orders.2RB was to make a night-dash through enemy-held country, secure Snipe and establish a defensive position, which they would then hold. But he did not hide the uncertainties from his company commanders – “This could well turn into a last-man, last-round affair. We will advance on foot, on a bearing of 233º, but if we find that the artillery barrage is on a different bearing, we will follow the barrage.”
The ‘Snipe Action’ (El Alamein) by Terence Cuneo.
2nd Bn The Rifle Brigade and 239 Battery RA knock out at least 32 enemy tanks.
Lt-Col. V.B. Turner (foreground) awarded the Victoria Cross.
At 11pm the battalion set off, with two scout platoons leading in their carriers, and the rest of the battalion on foot – C Company (Maj Charles Liddell) left; A Company (Capt David Bassett) right; B Company (Capt Mike Mosley) in reserve. The support weapons of S Company (Maj Tom Bird), all the vehicles and 239 Anti-tank Battery RA, which had been allocated to 2RB, were to wait on the Start Line, under the 2ic (Maj Tom Pearson of Sidi Saleh fame) to be called forward when Snipe was secure, although Bird himself went forward with the colonel.
It immediately became clear that the barrage was on a bearing 30º different from the battalion advance. The battalion swung west, to conform. After 1,000 yards they met some very surprised Germans – some escaped, most were taken prisoner. The battalion pressed on. Col Turner had estimated that after 2,000 yards they would have reached their objective, but after 3,000 yards the barrage was still continuing. Becoming increasingly concerned, he told his Gunner FOO to get the artillery to fire a single Phosphorous Smoke shell on the objective. This fell only 300 yards away, so he halted the advance and ordered the battalion to take up an all- round defensive position – C Company covering from South-west to North-west; A Company from North-west to East; and B Company from East to South-west. The success signal was sent back to the 2ic on the Start Line.
Back on the Start Line the 2ic’s party had been under constant artillery and even air bombardment, and had taken casualties. But on receipt of ‘Success’ Maj Pearson spent the rest of the night ferrying forward the support weapons and vehicles. In the dark, and with atrocious ‘going’, this proved to be a most difficult task. But by the time that daylight stopped further movement, he had brought forward thirteen of the battalion’s sixteen Anti-tank guns and the six of the eleven guns of 239 Anti-tank Battery RA.
Meanwhile, as the battalion prepared its defensive position - you can’t dig-in in soft sand! - the colonel sent C Company’s Scout Platoon, under Lt Dick Flower to ‘clear the front door-step’. Flower went about a mile west, and suddenly came upon the shapes of thirty-two German tanks and various logistic vehicles – clearly a German night leaguer. Some might have felt that this was the moment quietly to withdraw and report what he had found, but Flower decided to attack. Although he may have had surprise on his side, this was a courageous decision, which exemplified the offensive spirit which 2RB showed that day. Having set a couple of logistic vehicles on fire and thoroughly stirred up the Germans, he withdrew.
At 4am, doubtless alerted by Flower’s antics, the enemy decided to try to find out what was going on. Two groups of tanks advanced - one heading north, the other directly towards the battalion. Bird’s anti-tank guns had only just arrived on the position - it is almost impossible to site an anti-tank gun in the dark. They crews waited until the tanks were just a few yards away – the 6-pounder had no night sight. When they did open fire, two tanks were immediately knocked-out by Sgt Brown (who had already won the DCM on patrol with Charles Liddell – see above) and Cpl Cope. The remaining tanks quickly withdrew.
The arrival of dawn at about 6am produced a surprising fact. The battalion position was not on a ridge at all. In fact they were 900 yards South of Kidney Ridge, and in a shallow hollow. As the day progressed it became clear that the ground actually helped the defence, because, rather than being totally exposed and clearly visible from miles away, the anti-tank guns were, in effect ‘hull-down’ to the enemy until he got close. “Are we in the right place, Colonel?”, the Adjutant, Tim Marten asked. “God knows,” the colonel replied, “but here we are and here we damned well stay.”
Dawn also produced two other alarming facts. First, the artillery FOO, who had gone to look for a good OP position, had got lost in the dark. He never returned, so the battalion had no direct communications with the Gunners. There were many occasions during what was to be a long day of almost continuous fighting, that the lack of artillery support was sorely felt. Secondly, there were clearly a mass of enemy tanks, from South-west to North, only about 6-800 yards away – doubtless the remnants of those who had been given such a rude reception by the battalion a few hours earlier. They would have been a splendid target for the non-existent Gunners! As soon as it was light enough, Maj Bird’s anti-tank guns opened fire, and within a few minutes sixteen enemy tanks and self-propelled guns had been knocked-out. The escaping crews were hastened on their way by machine-gun fire and a good round of cheering from the Riflemen!
But as usual, the Germans reacted strongly, and within a few minutes the whole area was drenched in heavy fire – there were a number of casualties and three anti-tank guns were knocked-out.With full daylight, the battalion expected 24th Armoured Brigade to appear, pass through and advance west. Appear they did, on the ridge about 1,500 yards south-east of the battalion position - and promptly shelled the battalion, until Col Turner told his Intelligence Officer, Lt Jackie Wintour, to drive over to them and tell them to stop, which he duly did – driving in an open vehicle to tell an armoured brigade to stop shelling you cannot have been an attractive task! But by about 8am the first tanks of 24th Armoured Brigade arrived on the Snipe position. At the same time twenty-five enemy tanks were seen taking up positions about 1,000 yards away. The battalion’s anti-tank guns knocked-out another three, and the rest withdrew smartly.
This really stung the Germans into action and the whole area came under heavy and prolonged fire from every tank and gun within range. The German 88mm could knock out tanks at over 2,000 yards range, well beyond that of the British tank and anti-tank guns, and within fifteen minutes seven Shermans were on fire and three of 239 Battery’s guns had been knocked-out. Any further advance by 24th Armoured Brigade was clearly out of the question, so, having thoroughly identified the position to the enemy, the remainder withdrew, leaving 2RB entirely on its own. It is worth remembering that a Motor Battalion was very short of rifles when on its feet, because the drivers, signalers, etc were elsewhere with their vehicles. The entire force at Snipe was not above 300 strong.
At 9am Italian Infantry were seen massing to the South. Having no artillery support available, the colonel quickly despatched the ever-adventurous Lt Flower and C Company’s Scout Platoon to ‘see them off’, which they convincingly did.
At 10am the German commander sent thirteen Italian tanks to ‘eliminate’ the troublesome enemy at Snipe, and a further twenty-five to thirty German tanks to bypass Snipe to the South and attack 24th Armoured Brigade on the ridge behind. Maj Bird’s anti-tank gunners saw off both of these – leaving a further twelve tanks in flames. The rest, prudently, withdrew out of range.
Picture the scene around 11am. By now half the anti-tank guns had been knocked-out, and there were many casualties. The desert sun was at its hottest. The dust, grime, smoke of burning tanks and burning flesh, and hordes of flies, particularly around the dead and wounded, the smell of battle and the smell of death, hung over the entire area. Snipe was a most unpleasant and dangerous place that day.
And yet some indefinable spirit seemed to have gripped the Riflemen at Snipe. There were so many stars – too many to mention. But throughout the morning everyone at Snipe was aware of Col Turner, Maj Bird and the other company commanders constantly moving around – encouraging people, telling them what was going on, redistributing ammunition, resiting and helping to man guns, – Leadership, with a capital L. And yet, many years later, the colonel was to say that it was really the other way round – it was the typical Cockney humour and the sheer steadfastness of the Riflemen that really kept the show on the road. It sounds like a good two way trade!
Among the many stars was Rfn Burnhope, the medic. Earlier on, while they waited on the Start Line to be called forward, S Company and the vehicles had come under heavy artillery fire and been bombed. There had been a number of casualties, and the MO, Capt Picton, had been looking after them, and had therefore missed the run forward. Rfn Burnhope, the only medic on the Snipe position, was everywhere, tending the injured, totally regardless of his own safety. How often in peacetime we overlook the medic, and consider his to be a ‘cushy number’. Not in war! No MM was better earned than that awarded to Rfn Burnhope that day.
At 1pm, the Germans probably thought that, after 7 hours of constant attack and bombardment, the Snipe garrison would have had enough. They were about to learn how wrong they were. Eight Italian tanks and several self-propelled guns advanced on the position from the SW. There was only one gun in the C Company area which could bear – Sgt Charles Calistan’s. The rest of his crew had crawled away to get more ammunition, but been unable to return, so heavy was the fire.
With the colonel as loader and his Platoon Commander, 2Lt Jack Toms, as No1, Calistan waited until the tanks were 600 yards away. He promptly knocked-out five tanks and one self-propelled gun. But the remaining three tanks continued to advance firing their machine-guns, Calistan was now down to his last two rounds. Toms ran 100 yards to his Jeep, drove to another gun, loaded up some ammunition and drove back towards Calistan’s gun – all this under intense machine-gun fire. Remarkably he was not hit, but his Jeep was riddled with bullets, and eventually caught fire about ten yards from the gun. Toms, the colonel and Cpl Barnett, who had joined them, started to carry rounds over to Calistan, who, now joined by Cpl Francis, waited calmly beside his gun.
It was at this stage that Col Turner was hit in the head and had to sit down. By now the enemy tanks were just 200 yards away. Calistan waited until they were about 150 yards away, and then knocked-out all three, with three consecutive rounds. Every written account of the battle records his utter calmness throughout, despite the constant hail of machine-gun fire directed at him. This is born out by the fact that, during the lull that followed his execution of all eight tanks, he calmly said “We haven’t had a brew all morning, but now that the Eyeties have made us a fire, let’s use it.’ So he made a brew on the bonnet of the burning Jeep. Col Turner was later to say that it was the best brew he ever tasted!
There was then something of a lull – from direct attack, but never from shelling. By early afternoon casualty figures were mounting, including Maj Bird and 2Lt Toms. At about 4pm 2nd Armoured Brigade appeared on the ridge to the North-east. They should have advanced through 2KRRC at Woodcock, but Woodcock had not been taken. Like 24th Brigade before them, they hoped to use Snipe as a launch-pad. And like 24th Brigade, they also shelled the Riflemen at Snipe. Col Turner later described this as ‘the most unpleasant thing that happened on a thoroughly unpleasant day”.
By now Rommel had realised that the main attack was in the North, and he had redirected his amour, and in particular 21st Panzer Division, from the South. It was, perhaps, inevitable that, by chance, the area he had selected for his counter-attack was Snipe. The Riflemen watched this form up about 1,200 yards away - 70 tanks!
One group of 40 tanks set off to attack 2nd Armoured Brigade on the ridge to the north-east of Snipe, and moved across the north of the battalion position, just 3-400 yards in front of A Company and 239 Battery, seemingly oblivious of their presence. The anti-tank guns of Lt Irwin’s platoon and 239 Battery opened fire, helped by the tanks of 2nd Armoured Brigade on the ridge. Twenty tanks were quickly knocked-out, and the rest rapidly withdrew.
Seeing this, a second group of fifteen tanks detached from the main body and charged the battalion position from the North-west. Just two guns could be brought to bear, those of Sgts Hines and Miles – Hines was in fact manning another gun to which he had run when his own had been knocked-out earlier. Further back, Lt Holt-Wilson, Sgt Ayris and Rfn Chard had taken over another gun which was covering a different arc. Despite the heavy fire, they somehow managed to turn it round to face the new threat, a difficult task in the soft sand. Sgt Miles was hit, and his crew took cover. Seeing this, Sgt Swann crawled fifty yards, and manned the gun, on his own.
All three guns held their fire until the enemy were about 200 yards away. When they did open fire, the effect was devastating. Sgt Swann knocked-out one tank, and was then joined by the wounded Sgt Miles and his crew. Sgt Hines hit another – in fact the shell went straight through the turret and into the following tank. Another was hit by all three guns. In no time six tanks were burning and the rest had withdrawn to hull-down positions about 800 yards away, where they could not be engaged, and from where they continued to machine- gun the entire position for several hours.
The enemy had had enough – Rommel’s armoured counter-attack was still-born. At 7.30pm the remaining enemy tanks started to withdraw west, a withdrawal that did not end until the final surrender at Tunis, 1,500 miles west, in May 1943. And they were sent on their way with a final salute from the marvellous anti-tank gunners of 2RB – another tank was knocked-out, at 1,200 yards range, in failing light!
At 11pm that night the battered remains of 2RB withdrew. Just six of the nineteen anti-tank guns were still operable, and all these were put out of action before the battalion withdrew. Sixteen of the twenty-two carriers on the position had been destroyed and seventy-two of the 300-strong force had been killed or wounded. Sgt Calistan carried out one of his wounded crew members, but when he was hit again and killed, Calistan went back to fetch another. It is difficult to be certain how many enemy tanks had been destroyed, but the generally accepted figure is an astounding 57.
The decorations awarded following Snipe reflected the true significance of the battle. A VC for Col Turner, an immediate DSO for Maj Bird (who had earlier been awarded two MCs), a bar to the MC for 2/Lt Toms and MCs for Capts Marten and Bassett, Lts Flower, Irwin and Holt-Wilson, the DCM for Sgts Calistan and Swann and Rfn Cope, a bar to the MM for Sgt Hines, MMs for Sgts Miles and Ayris, Cpls Barnett and Francis and Rfn Burnhope.
The Legacy of Snipe
News of 2RB’s action at Snipe went round 8th Army like wildfire, and lifted everyone’s morale. Rommel and his armour had acquired a formidable, almost invincible, reputation over the past eighteen months. Now a battalion of 300 Riflemen, and in particular the anti-tank guns of S Company and 239 Battery RA, had soundly defeated him and destroyed a large slice of his armour. Winston Churchill was later to say “Before Alamein we never had a victory; after Alamein we never had a defeat” A bit rich, perhaps, but Alamein was the turning point of the war in the West, and Snipe was the turning point of Alamein. There was still a week of heavy fighting to go before the final break-through, but, with the defeat of Rommel’s armour at Snipe, the end was never in doubt.
On the regimental front Snipe became an epic of our distinguished history. Like the Peninsular War, Waterloo and Calais, it became the benchmark against which the post-war generation of Riflemen had to measure their standards. And this applied not just to those who served in The Rifle Brigade, but also the Riflemen of the Royal Green Jackets – and today to the new Riflemen of The Rifles. So long as there are Riflemen in the British Army, Snipe will always be studied with intense pride and admiration.
In 1972, 3RGJ, following the short interlude of R Company’s independence, had been reformed as a battalion and was about to return to Belfast. It was decided to hold a traditional Regimental Birthday-type open day – all the fun of the fair and an all-ranks supper and dance in the gym in the evening. Among the guests was Col Vic Turner. Officers and Sergeants wore mess-kit in the evening; Col Turner was in Dinner Jacket, wearing his miniature medals, which of course included his VC. In the middle of the evening a young Rifleman approached his company commander – “Is it true that there is a VC here?”, he asked. He was immediately introduced to Col Turner. The Rifleman asked if he would come meet a few of his chums.
It was a fine summer evening. Outside the gym was a collection of about half a dozen young Riflemen waiting, looking slightly self-conscious. But not for long; the first question was typically Riflemanly direct – “How did you win your VC, sir?” Col Turner’s reply was typically modest “I didn’t win a VC. It should have gone to a marvellous sergeant called Charles Calistan, but they gave it to me as the Team Prize for the entire battalion.” He then proceeded to tell them the story of Snipe. The company commander melted quietly away.
About half an hour later he returned to find the colonel surrounded now by about thirty young Riflemen. He was talking to them about the Regiment in general – our history, traditions, standards, outlook, drill, and dress, indeed all that makes the regiment special. Seeing the company commander’s shiny head in the background he said “Christopher, I think it’s my bedtime.”
Next morning he left, but not before saying how much he had enjoyed his visit, in particular meeting so many young Riflemen. Two weeks later he died. It was surely the way that he would wish to go, having just visited His Regiment and been surrounded by a mass of Riflemen who would be carrying the future of the regiment in their hands.
The following narrative is by the same Maj-Gen Briggs who commanded 1 Armoured Division at the time.
SALUTE THE SOLDIER (From the Rifle Brigade Chronicle of 1944)
THE following are extracts from an address to the people of Lambeth at the Empress Cinema, Brixton, on Sunday, 26 March, 1944, during the Salute the Soldier week, by Major-General R. Briggs, C.B., D.S.O., who commanded the 7th Armoured Division during the break through at the Battle of Alamein, October, 1942.
“I wish I had time to tell you of the heroism, determination and staunchness shown by soldiers in every part of the world. I wish I could tell you of incidents in Belgium, in Norway, in France, Greece, Crete, Abyssinia, Burma, or New Guinea, but I feel that I should say just something of what I know about most about the soldier who has lived and fought in the Western Desert. Some of those units have been for nearly four years in that desert, and there must have been months on end, during which none of our soldiers slept on anything but sand. In the open, on sand which was perpetually sprayed by the restless desert winds. Fine seeping dust that gets into everything, into weapons and engines, food, drink, hair, faces and eyes.
The officers and men of the Eighth Army frequently had to live on half a gallon of water a day. With this, they had to wash, wash their clothes, fill their radiators, cook their own food, to drink or to brew up their tea. A gallon a day was usual: two gallons were the height of luxury. Yet our men took to this strange life of the desert as if they had been born there. On the desert they dominated the Italians, and conquered the Germans. Some of them have died and are buried there, but I want you to know that all that time they never forgot you at home. Each day and each night they were thinking of you, frequently they were writing letters to you, always they were discussing you with their friends. I feel that we should not forget them either.
And now for just one incident which was described by the Commander-in-Chief as one of the finest actions of the whole war. On the 26th October, 1942, I was commanding an Armoured Division. The Battle of Alamein had been going on for three hard days, and on that Monday, it was quite obvious that there were two features held by the Germans that we must have. The code names of these two features were ‘Woodcock’ and ‘Snipe’. It is about Snipe that I want to tell you.
So that we could have some firm base round which our armour could manoeuvre it was quite essential that Snipe, strongly held by the Germans, should be in our hands. I, therefore, ordered a battalion of the Rifle Brigade 80 per cent of them Londoners to make an attack on Snipe that night. The attack went in with the utmost vigour, and the Riflemen were not slow in driving the enemy from their positions. There was a very yellow moon, and the enemy position was on the forward slope of a little ridge.
Between my Tactical H.Q. and Snipe, which was out of sight, was a long valley entirely dominated by German, 88mm anti-tank guns. All night long, the Riflemen, who were experienced in desert warfare, bearing in mind their slogan, ‘Dig or Die’ were busy digging-in their 6-pounder anti-tank guns and converting the enemy's weapon pits to their own use. Germans and Italians had been in that position some time, and the ground was stagnant with filth, and the air laden with flies and all of this in brilliant moonlight under the enemy's machine- gun fire. Shortly after midnight, the position was reported as captured and consolidated. About 3 o'clock, next morning, the enemy started attacking this very isolated battalion with tanks. From early morning until dusk, this one battalion withheld eight major tank attacks, each of them varying in strength from 5 to 50 tanks. I shall never forget that morning:
Listening in on my wireless to the C.O.of that battalion giving his reports and orders. That morning I made constant attempts to move forward armour so that it could help those Riflemen; but any attempt to cross the valley was met by the most intense fire and many tanks 'were knocked out. It was quite obvious that the Battalion could not be supported in daylight without losing a large number of tanks. I had to make the decision as to whether I would put in an armoured attack to support them, or whether I would leave them to fight it out as best they could.
I knew more of the general situation: I knew that, at that moment, Rommel was moving the tanks of the 21st Panzer Division from the south to join the 15th Panzer Division, and I knew that my tanks would be needed almost immediately for a more important role. Reluctantly, I had to make the decision that the loss of the tanks was not justified. How magnificently those Riflemen, supported the decision I had made!
All day long they stuck to their position inflicting tremendous damage on the enemy, killing large numbers of Germans and capturing a few. This Battalion completely destroyed “ brewed up," as they used to call it 35 German tanks, and damaged beyond repair at least another 20 more. I ordered them to withdraw that night. They went into that action about 400 strong, and how amazed and relieved I was to hear that so comparatively small price had been paid for their magnificent achievement. 2 officers and 12 other ranks killed; 12 officers and 33 other ranks wounded.
The C.O. Colonel Turner got the V.C. Here is an extract from Colonel Turner's citation: Throughout the action, Colonel Turner never ceased to go to each part of the front as it was threatened. Wherever the firing was heaviest, there he was to be found.An almost finer tribute came from a Sergeant Calistan, who lives at Forest Gate, and who had already gained the Military Medal, and who, for this action, was awarded the D.C.M. ‘Our Colonel kept going from gun to gun. How he inspired us! When the first attack came in, the Colonel was acting as loader by my gun. He got wounded in the head, a nasty one, and we wanted to bind it up, but he wouldn't hear of it. "Keep firing," that's what he went on saying.' For that one action alone, for those 36 hours magnificent stand, the Battalion gained 1 V.C., 1 Bar to the D.S.O., 1 D.S.O., 1 Bar to the M.C., 4 M.C.s, 3 D.C.M.s, 1 Bar to the M.M., and 10 M.M.s.
Based on my own experience in this war of nearly six months fighting in France and, of two years command with the Eighth Army; I can assure you that, for sheer guts, determination and will-power, the British soldier has no equal. I would like to define him as a man who is often grousing, but who never really complains-a man who has never been known to let his leaders down in battle-a wonderful comrade and a staunch friend. A man who, well led, will perform miracles of valour and endurance. A man we respect and love, and one whom we should all be proud to salute.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL VB TURNER VC
THE RIFLE BRIGADE - 1942 NORTH AFRICA
Date of Act of Gallantry: 27 October 1942 Place: Kidney Ridge, Egypt
"Lieutenant Colonel Turner led his Battalion of the Rifle Brigade in a night attack over 4,000 yards of difficult country and captured his objective, together with 40 prisoners and two 88mm guns. He then reorganised the position for all-round defence against counter-attack, etc. This position was so isolated that replenishment of ammunition was impossible and no support could reach the Battalion owing to the heavy concentration and accuracy of the enemy's fire. From early morning until late in the evening the Battalion was subjected to repeated attacks by nearly 100 German tanks, which advanced in successive waves, all of which were repulsed with heavy losses to the enemy, 35 tanks being burnt out and a further 20 immobilised. Throughout the action Lieutenant Colonel Turner never ceased to move in turn to each part of the front as it was threatened. All day long, wherever the fire was hottest and the fighting fiercest, there he was to be found bringing up ammunition, encouraging his men and directing the fire of his guns. Finding a six-pounder gun in action alone of its platoon, the others having been knocked out of action, he himself acted as loader and destroyed five enemy tanks at point blank range. While manning this gun he was wounded in the head by a machine-gun bullet, but he refused all aid until the last remaining tank had been destroyed, when only one round of ammunition was left. His superb personal bravery and complete disregard of danger resulted in the infliction of a severe defeat on the enemy armour in one of the finest actions of the war, and set an example of courageous leadership which was an inspiration not only to the whole Battalion, which fought magnificently, but also to the entire Eighth Army, in the critical opening days of the offensive." (London Gazette, 20 November 1942)