Volleyed and thundered

The Historical Eye

Volleyed and thundered, 1940

 

Several years’ ago I read a particularly thought-provoking account on the Battle of Arras, 1940, which witnessed the large-scale use of British tanks in an effort to blunt part of the German Blitzkrieg. That it met with limited successes and put the Germans on the back foot, albeit on a temporary basis, has made this engagement an attractive one for military historians to examine and debate. But less well known in terms of Britain’s contribution to the armoured warfare during the Fall of France campaign were the actions of Britain’s 1st Armoured Division, which ended up fighting a campaign filled with frustration, farce and tragedy.

 

At that time, 1st Armoured Division had been designed for both rapid attacks and reconnaissance in force; on paper, it was a unit that should have caused any opponent a serious headache. However, it was still in the process of being brought up to fighting strength when the German invasion of France was unleashed. Planners in the British War Office initially placed the unit on standby, hoping the Blitzkrieg would be contained and allow for its introduction on the frontlines as a fully-equipped, fully-supported unit. But as catastrophe loomed, it was decided to rush the unit to Normandy in a desperate bid to assist the French. Its orders were confused and its supply shaky; its collaboration with the French weak and, most importantly, its tanks were either unfamiliar or obsolete – or both. That the division managed to escape German clutches was due to the men’s endurance and the level-headed leadership of its command.

 

Into the inferno

Normandy, May 24 1940: a motorised infantry detachment of the 4th Border Regiment is driving through a silent wood to the northwest of Amiens. While the soldiers knew they were approaching the battle zone, none suspected that they had blundered into carefully laid German positions. The crack of rifles, the stutter of machine guns and the bark of anti-tank guns shattered the rustic peace. The Borders’ trucks were aflame within seconds. Those able to ran or staggered away from the scene looking for help, while fire consumed those who failed to escape. Nearby, in a position overlooking the woods and having started their own operations, Lieutenant Gavin and his armoured squadron of the Queen’s Bays could see a pall of smoke rising from the burning vehicles. Gavin ordered the squadron to advance and rescue the stricken Borders. They neutralised much of the opposition by laying down a wall of machine gun fire. The squadron then extracted the survivors while facing the constant threat of a counter attack. They performed their difficult task admirably and saved a good number of men before beating a hasty retreat…

 

The 1st Armoured Division had arrived in Cherbourg only a few days beforehand and was composed of two brigades: the ‘Light’ 2nd Brigade and the ‘Heavy’ 3rd Brigade. The Queen’s Bays, the 9th Lancers and the 10th Hussars comprised 2nd Brigade. The 3rd Brigade, which was made up by the 2nd RTR (Royal Tank Regiment) and 5th RTR, was one regiment short – the 3rd RTR had been sent to take part in the doomed defence of Calais. There was another other serious problem as artillery and infantry from the division’s support group had been siphoned off for use in other theatres, defeating the purpose of it being a pocket strike force. Worse still, the 257 tanks of the Division were questionable in quality. The Vickers Mark VIB and VIC tanks were obsolete even by 1940 standards, while the division’s new and untested BESA machine guns had yet to be fitted into the tanks and had only just arrived in packing cases before embarkation. Many of the gunners had not been trained on using and maintaining this armament.

 

The division’s A.9 and A.10 tanks were ‘deplorably equipped in comparison to the Germans’, according to 10th Hussar historian Peter Upton. The A.13, a fair Cruiser tank for the time, had only just finished field-trials and was only present in small numbers. It was an unfamiliar machine and its crews still had much to learn in operating it. Added to all of these weaknesses was a lack of essential equipment. Liddell-Hart, the great tank historian, wrote: ‘[They were] still short of equipment such as wireless, telescopes, and armour-piercing ammunition.’ Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, the division’s commander, Major-General Roger Evans, was forced to admit that his unit was ‘a travesty of an armoured division’.

 

On May 23, Evans was busy organising 2nd Brigade in Normandy, while 3rd Brigade was still crossing the channel. His efforts were interrupted by the arrival of War Office orders, which instructed the 1st Armoured Division to capture and secure four key bridgeheads across the Somme in and around the town of Abbeville and then push northwards to link up with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). To help him, Evans was given the use of the nearby 4th Battalion of the Borders Regiment. The French refused to participate. They considered the operation to be ‘an independent exploit’ and an ‘entirely British affair’.

 

In his official war report, Evans declared: ‘I realised that an operation to secure a crossing over an un-reconnoitred water obstacle, attempted without the artillery and infantry of my support group, and carried out by armoured units arriving piecemeal from detrainment was hazardous and unpromising of success.’ The order illustrates how out of touch the War Office was with events on the ground and how desperate its planning had become. From Evans and his staff’s perspective, it was insanity writ large. Evans said as much in his candid post-war appraisal: ‘I was ordered to force a crossing over a defended, unfordable river and afterwards to advance some sixty miles, through four real [enemy] armoured divisions to the help of the British Expeditionary Force.’ The unenviable task leading the attack fell to the only combat-ready regiment from the Light Brigade, the Queen’s Bays, which was promptly teamed up with the Borders.

 

One of the first units into action was Lieutenant Viscount Erleigh’s 2 Troop, which comprised just two Mark VIC tanks. It advanced on the small village of Dreuil and came under anti-tank fire about a mile from their objective, prompting them to make a quick withdrawal. An enemy machine gun, positioned on a nearby water tower added to their difficulties. This opponent was swiftly pinned down by a burst of BESA fire, but only for the time being. The Germans prudently kept quiet until the tanks had moved on and then started firing again when the foot-slogging Borders passed, causing the infantry a number of casualties. In the meantime, Erleigh’s tanks had attempted a pincer movement on the enemy. The machine on the left made some fair progress but the tank on the right found its path blocked by woods. The Borders in the centre of this action grappled with the enemy – hand-to-hand at some points – but also made little headway. By 13:00, assistance thought to be on its way had failed to materialise. The men were ordered back to reserve. Viscount Erleigh was awarded a Military Cross for his leadership in this tough action.

 

Meanwhile, at the centre of overall operations, Borders units and 3 Troop of the Bays had come across a destroyed bridge at Ailly. Although two Borders platoons managed to cross the river, with the Bays’ giving covering fire, the odds were too heavy and the men soon withdrew back across. However, the Borders’ retreat had something of a magnetic effect, drawing the enemy into the range of the Bays’ guns, and allowing the tanks to inflict some damage on their opponents. These two actions, as well as Gavin’s troop rescuing the Borders in the woods, might have been brave, professional and tenacious, but they were little more than pin-pricks against a determined and well-equipped enemy. The War Office’s initial order was dropped.

 

Desperate measures

Maxim Weygand, the newly-appointed Commander-in-Chief of all allied forces in France, believed he had a grand plan that could bludgeon the invading Germans to a standstill or, with luck, possibly defeat them. The masterstroke called for French forces to push north while the BEF would simultaneously strike south. In theory, a large bulk of the Wehrmacht would be caught, encircled and smashed. But Weygand’s plan was deeply flawed: the Frenchman knew little of the details regarding the BEF’s position and that its enclave was now tenuous and shrinking fast. Indeed, its flanks had become dangerously exposed following the collapse of Belgium and her army. Any move to make an offensive south would have invited disaster and the BEF’s command was already contemplating evacuation. Despite this, Weygand launched the offensive north in a desperate gamble to try and make as much headway as possible.

 

Unfortunately, the Germans already held all notable crossings across Somme River. Indeed, they had been given five relatively uninterrupted days to entrench and prepare defensive positions, with the Bays and Borders’ efforts on the 24 May little more than a minor annoyance. Weygand debated which formation might be able to strike across with the requisite speed and force. He selected 1st Armoured Division, now seconded to the newly-formed French 10th Army, assuming the unit was made up of heavy tanks that could withstand the opposition and allow French units behind to push through and then fan out to inflict maximum damage. Unfortunately, it was the latter role that 1st Armoured Division had been designed for – certainly not mechanised assault.

 

On seeing the task assigned his division, Evans protested to his immediate superior, General Robert Altmayer. He was new to the job, having been brought out of retirement, and he refused to take Evans’ arguments into account. In his book outlining the fall of France, Basil Karslake wrote: ‘General Altmayer would have none of it. He told General Evans that these were his orders and it was up to him to carry them out.’ In fairness, the War Office must take much of the blame here for failing to fully liaise with the French. They should have vigorously underlined the exact role the 1st Armoured Division was suited to, which was rapid manoeuvre warfare. Its Vickers tanks were minnows compared with the largest French machines. Altmayer then tried to reassure his British counterpart with the promise of support; the French formations of 2nd DLC and 5th DLC would offer artillery and infantry backup. For good measure, he added that this assistance would probably be superfluous as reconnaissance reported only light defences. Altmayer was being decidedly economical with the truth on this last point; French intelligence on German positions beyond the Somme was basic to non-existent.

 

Once again, Evans and his staff started making preparations as best they could. The battle would start at 05:00 on May 27, the assault planned to take place along a front stretching from the town of Abbeville to the seaside resort of St. Valéry-sur-Somme. The 3rd Brigade was expected to punch a hole along a 12-mile front and then secure St. Valery, with the French 5th DLC at their call. The 2nd Brigade was to clear the way to Abbeville by breaking the German defence line stretching through the villages of Bailleul, Limeux and Huppy. The 2nd DLC was to assist their efforts.

 

The killing fields

In the early hours of May 27, hidden in an orchard near Huppy, German anti-tank gunners could hear the rumble of motors approaching; it was not long before they could see dozens of light tanks pushing through the fields and bearing down upon their position. The vehicles belonged to the 10th Hussars and they were in sight of their first objective. The regiment expected minimal opposition, its diary recording that ‘French reconnaissance reports stated that this position was held by inferior troops equipped with only light anti-tank weapons’. They were in for a nasty shock.

 

The operation that day had been postponed by an hour due to French delays in the positioning their artillery.* Warnings of the delay had been forwarded to all British units via radio, but the 10th, suffering from ‘wireless difficulties’, failed to receive the message. Accordingly, they started their attack at the original time, driving towards great danger without infantry or artillery support to call on. The German gunners responded by working quickly and relentlessly as soon as the British tanks came into range. Within minutes, 20 of the 30 tanks were either stopped dead in their tracks or aflame. The ten remaining tanks limped back to safety.

*French artillery was overwhelmingly horse-drawn, which meant rapid deployment was limited.

 

The Bays had suffered as well. Their attack – made at the revised start time but now into the sun – occurred to the left of the Hussars and took them over the crest of a gently sloping ridge at Bailleul. Silhouetted on the skyline, they presented the perfect targets for the anti-tank gunners. Beddington, the Bays’ regimental historian, wrote: ‘[The] four leading tanks were hit in the first few minutes.’ Worn break-linings only added to the misery as ‘quick manoeuvre was impossible’. Smoke, ‘which would have been an invaluable aid was unavailable, or to be more precise undelivered’. Moves to try and outflank the enemy proved impossible as the enemy’s shells again found their targets with unnerving accuracy and again caused great damage.

 

Seeking support, the Bays sent Lieutenant Dance’s troop towards Huppy to make contact with 10th Hussars. Dance met French units en route and was given details of the mauling the Hussars had already received. In the meantime, the Bays had launched another attack and their tanks were stopped dead in their tracks once more. The enemy was simply too strong and the Bays’ diary ruefully notes: ‘It has been impossible to do little more than locate the enemy positions and at considerable cost.’ One officer, two sergeants and five other ranks had lost their lives and 12 tanks had been put out of action.

 

The 3rd Brigade achieved greater successes on 27 May, although the advantages gained were lost due to French over-caution. The 2nd RTR launched their attack and managed to reach the key hamlet of Miannay. Unable to advance through the village without infantry making sure it had been cleared, the tankmen had to call upon and then wait for 5th DLC to move up. Sadly this never occurred, with the staff diary noting: ‘No arty. or inf. support were forthcoming from the French and when withdrawal was finally ordered, the opportunity had been lost.’ Although written with hindsight, Karslake’s record of events is perhaps more revealing of the frustrations felt by the British. ‘Despite every effort to persuade the French to follow up the initial success and surprise nothing was done. Every excuse was offered, “Were we sure that this village was clear?”; “An enemy tank was spotted in that wood”; “We have very few soldiers”; “Our troops have been fighting for three weeks” etc, etc.’

 

The 5th RTR obtained the best results of the day. They managed to reach the key heights overlooking St. Valery and immediately appealed for French support. With the heights taken, an infantry assault under covering fire from the British tanks had the good prospect of capturing the town and securing an important bridgehead over the Somme. But instead of attacking, the local French commander moved his men a little further forward and had them prepare defence lines instead. Despite being responsible for the loss of two opportunities that day, the French considered the operation a success. A telegram was sent to 1st Armoured Division HQ thanking the British for the results that ‘we have achieved’.

 

On May 28, French tank units under the command of Charles De Gaulle, recently promoted to acting Brigadier General, relieved Evans’ battered force and took over the responsibility for an assault over the Somme. With the better-quality French tanks under his command, De Gaulle managed to seize bridgeheads across the Somme, although the Germans soon contained any further advances. One can only speculate on the results De Gaulle might have achieved had his tanks attacked from an already-secure bridgehead out of St. Valery. The effort would have almost certainly been contained, although it might have achieved a notable French success in a campaign littered with disasters.

 

Battered and bruised

For 1st Armoured Division only 65 Cruisers and 64 Light Tanks were now operational and the men, worn out from action, urgently needed some rest. But this was not an option and Evans ordered 3rd Brigade and a composite regiment that comprised all working vehicles from the 2nd Brigade to support the 51st Highland Division, another British unit in the region. The rest of 2nd Brigade was ordered to the Forét de Louviers, near Rouen, to carry out maintenance and repairs on the salvageable tanks. The perennial problem of supplies had become a severe headache and many vital spares for the tanks were missing. Indeed, the situation was so desperate that a nearby Renault plant was scoured for useful parts.

 

The division’s sector remained quiet as German attentions were diverted by their attempts to crush the BEF. This was the calm before the storm; with operations in and around Dunkirk soon over – the bulk of the BEF had escaped by the skin of its teeth – the full weight of Germany’s armies was about to be unleashed on France under ‘Plan Red’. This was launched on 5 June, with part of the main thrust crashing through Normandy. French units in the region were battered from the air, brushed aside by the seemingly-invincible Panzers, and then mopped up by the regular divisions; liaison with the 1st Armoured Division started to collapse.

 

Aware that the German coup de grace had begun, Evans waited for orders from French High Command to arrive. On 7 June, frustrated and left in the dark for 48 hours, the general jumped into his staff car and was driven to see Altmayer. French intelligence on where the enemy was and what his likely objectives might be had collapsed. Nonetheless, this lack of knowledge did not stop Altmayer from issuing unequivocal orders: 1st Armoured Division, with just 78 tanks remaining, was to attack with all speed and halt the German advance. Evans was left speechless. As he was about to protest, Weygand arrived and promptly cancelled Altmayer’s orders, telling the British general that 1st Armoured Division should move south of Rouen and try to halt the German advance there. Grateful that Altmayer’s orders had been shelved, Evans was still concerned; his division could help, but it had no chance of halting the enemy alone. Would there at least be French support?

 

His army crumbling, his grand plan thwarted and his country on the verge of defeat, Weygand responded by ordering Evans to ‘defend his position at all costs – with his bare hands if necessary’. The Englishman bowed to the inevitable and returned to divisional headquarters to make hasty preparations for a possible last stand. Interestingly, the head of the British military mission to the French 10th Army, General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall was also present. Writing in 1977, he recalled Evans and himself attending together, and that Weygand was already present. Altmayer appears reasonable in Marshall-Cornwall's account, while the French supreme commander is described as acting 'hysterically'. Marshall-Cornwall states Weygand shouted: ‘"It is the decisive battle of the war! Every man should fight where he is! Each tank ought to be a strong point! Everyone should pass to the attack! One must bite the enemy like a dog – tear him with the teeth!"'*

*If this outburst did indeed happen, then it is at least understandable; most leaders would have been equally dismayed if faced with Weygand's situation i.e. complete collapse; open talk of armistice; and the thought of being forever linked to disaster and defeat.

 

Discord and disarray

On 8 June, the last defence line in the theatre, the Andelle line, was torn apart. A retreat across the Seine, south of Rouen was vital if the 1st Armoured Division was to avoid being encircled and devoured. The going was slow and infuriatingly tense, which led to moments of high drama tinged with farce, as 2nd Brigade was to discover. Setting out for Pont de l'Arche to cross the Seine, the unit found columns of refugees and French colonial troops clogging up the route. As more people joined the retreating masses, the slower progress became. The unit finally reached Pont de l'Arche the next morning and discovered no movement was being allowed across the bridge. Frustrated, 2nd Brigade officers approached the French soldiers on guard and requested permission to cross. They were rebuffed, with the British told to first obtain authorisation from French command. With tempers already frayed, this bureaucratic stance was the last straw. At the head of the British column, Major Peter Sykes insisted his men would cross regardless. The French commanding officer responded by threatening to use his 75mm anti-tank guns if they tried.

 

At this point a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft was spotted circling overhead. There was now the lethal prospect of enemy dive-bombers making an appearance. Thinking on their feet, 2nd Brigade placed a troop of tanks to cover the far side of the river where French anti-tank positions were thought to be located. Should the French open fire the order was given that general battle should commence. Headed by another troop of working tanks, the two regiments of the 2nd Brigade approached the bridge barrier, the British expecting the worst. Thankfully, instead of a fight erupting between allies, the bridge post was politely raised and 2nd Brigade continued its retreat. Dawnay wrote: ‘We all drew sighs of relief on gaining the cover of the woods on the other side.’

 

In the meantime, 3rd Brigade and the composite regiment’s secondment with the 51st Highland Division had come to an end, with both units also ordered to retreat across the Seine. The threat of destruction urged them on and they managed to make a difficult and trying journey of 120 miles in a single day. The retreat brought the war and the suffering of civilians into sharp relief. Tankman Pat Hobart witnessed a stark scene while crossing the Seine, writing: ‘We were clattering down cobbled streets, it was dark, some houses were on fire and by the light of a burning building, just at the end of the bridge, I saw the body of a young woman sprawled against the wall clutching her dead child.’ Having crossed the Seine, both brigades held hasty defensive positions close to the river, just south of Rouen. The French were in disarray and, in many areas, had withdrawn to leave the British holding the line alone. The Bay’s war diary records: ‘The French made very little effort to hold the river and nearly all of them had retreated south.’ France’s army was falling apart.

 

Evans and other top-ranking British Army generals in the theatre decided to hold an emergency meeting on the evening of 9 June. He and Marshall-Cornwall had met earlier for lunch, during which they were interrupted by a stuka bombing run. The division was reaching the limits of its endurance and had found itself being pushed back or forced to withdraw whenever heavily engaged. The men were in desperate need of a rest once more, while the surviving and workable tanks needed a complete overhaul. With permission, Evans ordered all of 2nd Brigade, including the composite regiment, to move out of the firing line towards Le Mans. Meanwhile, it was decided that 3rd Brigade would remain in the field, but carry out repairs at the Foret de Pereign. Grim news arrived on June 13th; the 51st Highland Division had been encircled and destroyed at St. Valéry-sur-Somme by Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division.

 

Escape

The end of operations in France for the 1st Armoured Division came abruptly. Defence in the Normandy region may have been brittle to say the least, but in other parts of the country military resistance had simply collapsed. Marshall-Corwall later recalled that he had requested Brigadier Crocker's 3rd Brigade be taken out of the line on 13 June. But this did not occur; Crocker was informed on 14 June that he was now under the command of French General Petiet and needed to cover a five-mile gap between the villages of Barc and Barquet. Crocker recieved orders to move to Cherbourg and prepare for evacuation on 15 June as 1st Armoured Division headquarters had just been informed of French armistice plans. Meanwhile, Marshall-Cornwall had been made responsible for all British forces within the French 10th Army, albeit with just one remit: get all available British personnel and materiel out of France.

 

Moving through the Cherbourg Peninsula on 16 June, 3rd Brigade received a message from Petiet, telling the brigade to move 50 miles southwest, back inland. Carrying this order out would have doomed the brigade to defeat and capture as there was only one day’s worth of fuel and rations left, which was just enough to reach Cherbourg. Crocker wired Marshall-Cornwall for clarification and the reply was unequivocal: ‘You will proceed forthwith to Cherbourg’. Britain was preparing for its own defence and every man and tank taken out of France would be vital. Marshall-Cornwall handed Altmayer a letter formal notification that British forces were now disengaging and preparing for evacuation that same day.

 

On the morning of 17 June, 3rd Brigade Headquarters tuned into the BBC and heard an announcement warning of an imminent French armistice. The news spurred the men on and they arrived at the channel port by evening. They quickly got on with the job of loading up onto the waiting transport ships and, by midnight, had set sail for England. Amazingly, they had been unknowing participants in a race for the town. Erwin Rommel’s forces, after destroying the 51st Highland Division, had been hot on their heels. French resilience outside of Cherbourg and along the approaches to the town had played a key part in slowing the future ‘Desert Fox’ just enough to enable the British to escape. Marshall-Corwall later noted that a total of 30,630 men from various units embarked on the night of June 17/18, while Crocker managed to save 26 tanks, 11 scout cars and 49 lorries. The final British ship left at 4 pm, with both Crocker and Marshall-Cornwall on board and escaping by the skin of their teeth as the Germans had just 3 miles to go until reaching the docksides. The loading cranes had already been fallen by demolition teams, while any materiel unable to be transported in time had been set alight.

 

The 2nd Brigade’s journey, although tense, was less dangerous than 3rd Brigade’s. The unit raced to Brest, Brittany, and evacuated from there. They arrived in Plymouth on 17 June, but without their tanks. Only 15 machines were left to the brigade in the campaign’s final days. These vehicles were entrained at Le Mans but had failed to reach Brest. The crews had left France by driving their lorries from Le Mans to Cherbourg and joined the general evacuation from that port. In a somewhat bizarre postscript, the missing tanks were found at the end of the war on a German army range near Lubeck. Back in Britain, and much to their surprise, the men arrived to find themselves caught up in the post-Dunkirk euphoria, with the public offering them support and warm words of encouragement. For some of the 1st Armoured Division it was difficult to reconcile their experiences in France to the hearty welcome they received at home. The historian for the Ninth Queen’s Royal Lancers wrote: ‘We felt like heroes until we remembered that we were part of a defeated army.’

 

Like or not, France 1940 for the 1st Armoured Division had been an unmitigated disaster – precious lives, equipment and vehicles, now desperately needed for the defence of Britain, had been lost for no gain. However, this was not the fault of the men of 1st Armoured Division, who displayed both courage and determination in the face of terrible odds. Poor supply, unfamiliar technology and obsolete tanks proved insurmountable difficulties that guaranteed successes would be few and far between, while defeat and retreat would always be on the cards. Thankfully, many vital lessons learnt by 1st Armoured Division were analysed and introduced on a wider scale, particularly the need for dedicated infantry support.

 

Major-General Evans, the man who had been placed in an impossible position from the day of his arrival, and who had successfully shepherded his forces out of the maelstrom, was replaced on his return. Given that Britain was in desperate need of men who possessed the knowledge and wherewithal to direct armoured command, it seems a short-sighted decision to say the least. Almost four years later, in late May 1944, a new British Army was poised to return to Normandy, with tank units forming a core component of this revitalised force. The struggle and suffering of 1st Armoured Division, so small when compared with the immense battles that had already been fought and were yet to fought, had already faded from memory.

 

Bibliography

 

Barber N, The Week France Fell, Macmillan, 1976

Beddington W R, A History of the Queens Bays (the 2nd Dragoon Guards) 1929-1945, Warren & Son Ltd, 1954

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Bois E J, Truth on the Tragedy of France, Hodder and Stoughton, 1941

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Hutchinson W (editor), Hutchinson’s Pictorial History of the War: 12th June to 6th August, Hutchinson & Co, 1940

Imperial War Museum, 1st Armoured Division reference sheets, no author or date declared

Karslake B, 1940 The Last Act: The story of the British Forces in France after Dunkirk, Leo Cooper, 1979

Knapp W, France: Partial Eclipse, Macdonald/American Heritage Press, 1972

Liddell Hart B H, The Tanks – The History of the Royal Tank Regiment: Volume Two, Cassell, 1959

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Upton P, The Tenth: 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales’ Own) 1715-1969, BAS Printers Ltd, 1999

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Weygand M, Recalled to Service, William Heinemann Ltd, 1952

 

National Archives:

Staff diary of 5th RTR, WO 167/334

Staff diary of the Bays, WO 167/445

Evans R, General Evans’ summary of events, WO 106/334

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