Volleyed and Thundered, 1940
For those interested in the Fall of France, 1940, there are several thought-provoking works on the Battle of Arras, 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 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 and, 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 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 know they are approaching the battle zone, none of them suspect they have blundered into carefully laid German positions. The crack of rifles, the stutter of machine guns and the bark of anti-tank guns shatters the rustic peace and the Borders’ trucks are aflame within seconds. Those who can run or stagger away from the scene looking for help, while fire consumes those who fail 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 can see a pall of smoke rising from the burning vehicles. Gavin orders the squadron to advance and rescue the stricken Borders, and they neutralise much of the opposition by laying down a wall of machine gun fire. The squadron then extractes the survivors, while facing the constant threat of a counter attack. They perform their difficult task admirably and save 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’.
Evans was busy organising 2nd Brigade in Normandy on 23 May, while 3rd Brigade was still crossing the channel. His efforts were interrupted by the arrival of War Office orders, which instructed 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, considering 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 just how out of touch the War Office was with events on the ground and how desperate its planning had become. Indeed, it was insanity writ large for those on the ground and Evans said as much in a 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 them 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. Assistance thought to be on its way had failed to materialise by 13:00 and 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 had soon withdrawn back across. However, the Borders’ retreat had something of a magnetic effect on the enemy, drawing them 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 prudently dropped.
Maxime Weygand, taking over as Commander-in-Chief of all French forces on 17 May, delayed and then – 48 hours later – reactivated a grand plan to 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 invading German army would be caught, encircled and smashed. But the plan was deeply flawed: French high command knew little of the details regarding the BEF’s position and that its enclave was tenuous and shrinking fast, its flanks already 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.
*Weygand replaced Maurice Gamelin. The cancellation and then reactivation of the flank attack meant the slower, non-motorised German units were given extra time in which to catch up with advanced formations and add their weight to enemy numbers.
Unfortunately, the Germans held all notable crossings across Somme River and, in this sector, had been given five relatively uninterrupted days to entrench and prepare defensive positions. The Bays and Borders’ efforts on the 24 May had been little more than a minor annoyance. Weygand debated which formation might be able to strike across with the requisite speed and force and selected 1st Armoured Division, now seconded to the newly-formed French 10th Army. He assumed the unit was made up of heavy tanks that could withstand heavy 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.
Evans protested to his immediate superior, General Robert Altmayer, on seeing the task assigned his division. Altmayer 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 as it had failed to fully liaise with the French and underline the exact role 1st Armoured Division was best suited to, which was rapid manoeuvre warfare. Altmayer tried to reassure his British counterpart with the promise of support, with the French formations of 2nd Division Légère de Cavalerie (DLC) and 5th DLC to offer artillery and infantry backup. The assistance would probably be superfluous, he added, because reconnaissance reported only light defences. Altmayer was being decidedly economical with the truth here: 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 27 May, the assault to take place along a front stretching from the town of Abbeville to the seaside resort of St. Valéry-sur-Somme. Faced with a 12-mile front, 3rd Brigade was expected to punch through the enemy and, if possible, secure St. Valery along the way. The French 5th DLC would be at their call. Meanwhile, 2nd Brigade was to clear the way to Abbeville by breaking the German defence line stretching through the villages of Bailleul, Limeux and Huppy, with 2nd DLC to assist.
The killing fields
In the early hours of 27 May, hidden in an orchard near Huppy, German anti-tank gunners could hear the rumble of motors approaching and it was not long before they saw dozens of light tanks pushing through the fields and bearing down on their position. The vehicles belonged to the 10th Hussars and they were in sight of their first objective, expecting minimal opposition. The unit's diary recorded ‘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* and warnings 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 suffered too. 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 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, their tanks stopped dead once more. The enemy was simply too strong, with the Bays’ diary ruefully noting: ‘It has been impossible to do little more than locate the enemy positions and at considerable cost.’ The unit suffered one officer, two sergeants and five other ranks killed, plus 12 tanks 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 support making sure it had been cleared, the tankmen had to call on 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 by managing to reach the key heights overlooking St. Valery and immediately appealing for French support. With the heights taken, an infantry assault under covering fire from the British tanks would have had a good prospect of capturing the town and securing an important bridgehead over the Somme. But instead of attacking, the French commander moved his men a little further forward and had them prepare defence lines instead. The French considered the operation a success, despite being responsible for the loss of two opportunities that day, with a telegram was sent to 1st Armoured Division HQ thanking the British for the results that ‘we have achieved’.
On 28 May, 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 heavier French tanks under his command, and with great fighting spirit among his men, De Gaulle managed to seize bridgeheads across the Somme. However, the Germans soon contained further advances and one can only speculate on the results De Gaulle could have achieved had his tanks attacked from an already-secure bridgehead out of St. Valery.* The effort would have almost certainly been halted, but it might have achieved a notable tactical success in a campaign littered with disasters.
*Had De Gaulle's men and tanks been utilised first, securing the bridgeheads and forcing back heavier opposition, the 1st Armoured Division could have then pushed through at greater speed and attempted to sow some of the disruption for which it had been designed.
Battered and bruised
Only 65 Cruisers and 64 Light Tanks were operational for 1st Armoured Division and the men, worn out from action, urgently needed to rest. But this was not an option and Evans ordered 3rd Brigade and a composite regiment comprising 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. It was the calm before the storm and operations in and around Dunkirk were soon over – the bulk of the BEF and thousands of French troops escaping by the skin of their teeth. The full weight of German forces was about to be unleashed on France under ‘Plan Red’, which was launched on 5 June. One of the main thrusts came crashing through Normandy, with many French units battered from the air and then brushed aside by the seemingly-invincible Panzers units. Any units that continued to fight were then mopped up by the regular divisions.
Aware the German coup de grace had started, Evans waited for orders from French High Command to arrive. On 7 June, frustrated and left in the dark for 48 hours, he 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. He was about to protest when Weygand arrived and promptly cancelled Altmayer’s orders, telling the British general that 1st Armoured Division should move south of Rouen and halt the German advance there. Grateful Altmayer’s orders had been shelved, Evans was still concerned: his division could assist 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 commander-in-chief is described as acting 'hysterically'. Marshall-Cornwall records Weygand shouting: ‘"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!"'
Discord and disarray
The last line of Defence in the theatre, the Andelle Line, was torn apart on 8 June and 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 and there was now the lethal prospect of enemy dive-bombers making an appearance soon afterwards. Thinking on their feet, 2nd Brigade commanders 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 firefight 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 was put at an end, with both units ordered to also retreat across the Seine. The threat of destruction urged them on and they managed to make the difficult journey of 120 miles in a single day. The retreat brought the war and the suffering of civilians into sharp relief. For example, 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.’
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 13 June: 51st Highland Division had been encircled and forced to surrender at Saint-Valery-en-Caux by Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division.
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 military resistance in other parts of the country had simply collapsed. Marshall-Corwall later recalled requesting 3rd Brigade be taken out of the line on 13 June. But this did not occur; its brigadier, John 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. On 15 June, Crocker recieved orders to move to Cherbourg and prepare for evacuation 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 and 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 also 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 17/18 June, 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 was 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, arriving in Plymouth on 17 June. However, their tanks had been lost. Only 15 machines were left to the brigade in the campaign’s final days and 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 in 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 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 unit's men, 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 in France, 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 be fought, had already faded from memory.
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