1 Gordons, St. Valery
Journal extract, Capt. Taylor, Intel. Officer 1 Gordons
Below is an extract from the War Diary of Capt. J.P.P. Taylor, who was the Intelligence Officer of the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlands.
The Bn reached St-Valéry, where it encountered the greatest traffic disorganisation of the whole campaign. All the heavy MT belonging to the Division arrived from Deauville, the French 31 Div. arrived in a chaotic state and it was apparent that there was no one in charge of the situation. To add to this, there were odd detachments of French mounted troops accompanying them. From the west side of St-Valéry, French troops were running back into the town, having discovered that Cany was held by the enemy; with these troops there was also a large quantity of motor transport. To make this picture clearer, the reader must try and imagine himself as a policeman on point duty at the main road junction leading into St-Valéry, faced with the personnel of two Brigades all embussed arriving from every conceivable direction and none having any idea where to go! Such was the task of the Divisional Commander, as he alone was left to sort out this rabble. The French Corps Commander, a man over 70 years of age, had for the last three days thrown his hand in. General Fortune, in order to alleviate congestion, directed columns down various roads, and amongst these went certain sub-units of our Bn!
Having taken an hour to pass through St-Valéry, the head of the Bn column reached the main road leading from St-Valéry to Cany le Burgh. The latter was still to be our objective as previously mentioned. The object was to dislodge from the town a few isolated enemy motorised detachments. Whenever one heard that phrase one knew it was far from the truth. There may have been motorised detachments, but I never came across the case of an isolated one! On account of the ever-increasing congestion of MT on this Cany road, the Colonel decided to debus the battalion at ‘X’ (see sketch page) and to carry all weapons, continuing the advance towards Cany by march route, ‘D’ Company finding the Advanced Guard. The adjutant was ordered to bring the Bn forward and the Colonel and myself went on by car for recce purposes.
The Colonel and I arrived at the Cany-St-Sylvain junction and met Ritchie of the 2nd Bn Seaforths, whose Company was holding a line from inclusive St-Sylvain to the coast. On first sight of him and his men, it looked like a large partridge drive as they were beating the corn for Germans, who were reported to be as near to St-Valéry as this!
The Divisional Commander arrived and cancelled his orders for the Cany attack and ordered the Colonel to take up a position to hold the ground between the 2nd Seaforths on our right and the 4th Camerons on our left. Dividing lines between Bns were to be decided mutually.
The head of the Bn arrived at this road junction. ‘A’ Coy and ‘D’ Coy were complete, also ‘D’ 7th Royal Norfolks commanded by Major Wilson. ‘C’ Coy, 1 Platoon of ‘B’ Coy and ‘B’ Coy HQ personnel, exclusive of Captain Dennistoun Sword, also Bn HQ personnel and ‘B’ Echelon MT were all missing, having been diverted by the Divisional Commander onto the Néville Road.
The Colonel ordered a platoon of ‘D’ Coy to advance down the Cany road acting as point platoon of an Adv. Gd. The remainder of the Bn followed, but after this platoon had gone about half a mile the Colonel halted them and went forward by car with Hector and myself, in order to make a quick recce. We motored within two miles of Cany, but saw no signs of the enemy. We passed one or two dead French civilians on the road and others alive, who were hurrying towards St-Valéry. We cross-examined these, but were unable to get any real sense out of them other than the fact that enemy infantry were in Cany.
Sketch map by Capt. Taylor, Intelligence Office 1 Gordons, of the St-Valery bridgehead western flank showing Coy areas on June 11th 1940 at 0930 hrs
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Companies were moving to take up their positions in accordance with the sketch (see plate xi). The country was very flat and all planted with corn. There were a few woods, but as we had been led to believe that we were up against motorised troops only, it was decided to take up a position in the open, making use of the excellent camouflage afforded by the corn.
The Colonel, Hector and myself went to the 4th Cameron HQ. The CO of the 4th Camerons, Major Ronny Mackintosh Walker, was not at their HQ when we visited them, but subsequently came up in a carrier in the main St-Valéry-Cany Road, where he fixed with the Colonel where our left and his right should join, leaving us with the crossroads marked ‘Y’ inclusive (see sketch, plate xi).
Bn HQ was established (see sketch, plate xi, page 93). The orderly Rm staff and office truck were missing, but HQ Coy, including the Bn platoon of the Bde ATK Coy, were present and I sent a message to Div. HQ at Néville giving Coy dispositions of the Bn. Of course, I was still working off the 1:250,000 Sheet 4, so detailed accuracy was not easy to send.
When we left Sauqueville, we ceased to be under 153 Bde owing to the position which we now occupied. The remaining Bns of 153 Bde were on the east side of the bridgehead. We now came under 152 Bde, who did not make contact with us until late in the afternoon. No one, including Division, knew the position of their HQ.
The Colonel after leaving the 4th Camerons went round the Company positions and after making minor adjustments returned to Bn HQ. Hutchy in the meantime had gone off to find the missing portion of the Bn and brought back ‘B’ Coy personnel, also ‘C’ Company commanded by Capt. F.J. Colville. There was still one platoon of his company absent.
After a second search for the missing personnel, Hutchy returned with the ‘A’ Echelon MT less the Bn office truck and staff.
Everything was still absolutely quiet. The weather was perfect; a very hot June day. We pulled some potatoes, which the occupants of a farmhouse whose orchard we were occupying boiled for us. Lunch was made off these and fresh butter. There was no sign of the QM or ration truck and the men had received no food since 1300 hrs the previous day. Its eventual arrival coincided precisely with that of a shell, and we said goodbye to all; but luckily Titch Campbell, being so small, was uninjured but heartbroken to see the fruitless result of his labours.
Sketch map by Capt. Taylor, Intelligence Office 1 Gordons, showing the Tank attack at St. Valery, 1500-1520 hrs, June 11th 1940
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Without any previous warning or indication, the Bn was attacked by enemy medium tanks numbering between 25-35. The tanks approached from Cany and advanced on the centre of the Bn. The forward companies fired at them with all they had. Unfortunately there was no ammunition left for the ATK rifles, but the enormous volume of SAA fire had the effect of driving them off our front after 20 minutes. We saw them move off along the St-Sylvain road towards the 2nd Seaforth and St-Valéry (see sketch, plate xii). In the course of this attack, ‘D’ Coy of the Norfolks suffered many casualties as their men were run over whilst lying in the corn. Jimmy Dunlop fired both his remaining 1 pdr guns from a position about 20 yds in front of Bn HQ. We all thought he had knocked one or two out, but afterwards we found they were burning haystacks. They were really out of range during the early stage and it was only a matter of minutes before enemy mortars scored direct hits on both these gun positions, causing very heavy casualties to their crews. We were dumbfounded at the accuracy of the weapons and also the speed at which they engaged their targets. I have not mentioned before that the third gun from the ATK platoon had been previously damaged and could not be fired.
A message was sent by M/C DR to Div. HQ, who had moved to St-Valéry, informing them of this attack and stating how it had now diverted to the 2nd Seaforth front, and appeared to be aimed at reaching St-Valéry. The DR succeeded in delivering the message and returned to the Bn.
The Colonel and I walked to ‘A’ Coy and went out in front of their fwd pl. positions in the hopes of seeing some result of all our firing. All we saw was a burning haystack. The Colonel then ordered 2/Lt. Ogilvie to take out a patrol to search the area for wounded, but this also proved unfruitful. From where we stood and by looking back onto our lines, we saw and heard a considerable amount of firing on the 2nd Seaforth front. It appeared that the majority of tanks had made their way to the high ground surrounding St-Valéry, but about six had stayed behind to encircle the wood which the Bn was occupying.
The Colonel and I went by car to visit the 4th Camerons, in the hopes of getting some further news from them, but they reported that everything had been perfectly quiet on their front. They were relieved to hear that we had survived the shelling with very few casualties. A short conversation followed, after which we departed and returned to the Bn HQ at 1700 hrs. This was the last trip that the Colonel made in this car. I should like to say here that it had stood up to its hard work remarkably well and even succeeded in getting John Rhodes to St-Valéry later on in record time!
The Colonel spotted an enemy recce party approaching a haystack on our left in front of ‘D’ Coy’s area. At first we thought it might have been a patrol sent out by the 4th Camerons but, as things turned out, it was obviously the recce for the 2200 hrs attack. The firing by this time had died down on the 2nd Seaforth front and all was again quiet.
Rations were sent up to Companies and the men prepared an evening meal. The Bn RAP in the château immediately in rear of our HQ was busy dealing with the wounded. It was now almost impossible to evacuate casualties, as the enemy were between us and St-Valéry.
At this time the IO of the 152 Bde arrived at Bn HQ. He was out of breath and very worried about his return journey, and what amazed us was that he could not give us the location of his own Bde HQ as he said they were moving and he didn’t know where to find them. Hector and I didn’t take long to sum up the reliability of this officer, and with the Colonel’s permission we sent Pte Earle, our best DR, back with him. We further told this officer that he need not worry to visit us again and, in the event of any important orders which had to be sent, he could send Pte Earle back with them. We knew that a man on a motorbike would stand a better chance of getting through and, if it was in any way possible, Earle would do it!
Needless to say, when our orders to withdraw at 2200 hrs were sent from Division to Bde, that was as far as they got until Victor Campbell, the BM, came up with them on foot entirely by himself. I asked this IO afterwards what happened to Earle, and he told some wonderful story of how he had driven furiously through enemy tanks in order to reach us but found it impossible to do so, and Earle, who was following, had lost his way. Actually I had seen Earle previously, who told me that he never left Bde HQ once after arriving there. It was quite obvious that the orders to us had been forgotten, although they could have been sent by the RHA [Royal Horse Artillery] telephone. The result was that we lost a tremendous number of lives unnecessarily. That’s what happens when a completely uneducated and illiterate innkeeper is made a Bde IO. Perhaps I am running away with myself, but as it cost Freddy’s life, I shake with rage whenever I see him. The 4th Camerons withdrew at 2200 hrs and, as our two HQ were so close, it seems amazing to think that this order should not have reached us.
Col. Pépé, the CO of the RHA [Royal Horse Artillery], shot a horse in our orchard, which had broken a leg caused by the shelling.
Still quite quiet. Bn HQ had some boiled eggs and ‘hard tack’, during which the enemy sent over a few ranging shells which burst immediately over our heads. The Colonel selected an alternative position for Bn HQ about 500 yds to our right in the northern forward edge of this wood.
Nothing further took place between 1900-2200 hrs. At 2200 hrs, however, the enemy launched a heavy attack by fire. Apart from very heavy shelling by their heavy mortars, Bn HQ was also heavily machine-gunned; 1 in 3 tracer was used. This outburst of fire went on for 20 minutes and it might have been a night firing demonstration, everything was so accurate. Luckily for us, there was a substantial bank with trees on top of it which afforded good cover, and we replied to this fire with all we had! From the line of bullets, which we could follow all the way, the fire was almost frontal, and we subsequently learnt that it came from tanks on the main Cany- St-Valéry road (see sketch). As far as could be ascertained in the dark, only few casualties were caused. At first, we did not realise the full significance of this attack, but subsequently learnt that it covered the infiltration of enemy infantry from our left flank. The 4th Camerons had of course withdrawn as per orders, although we did not know it, and the enemy had come across their front and then across ours between ourselves and our forward companies, thus severing all communication with them.
Before this attack started, the Colonel was informed by the Art’y Comd that their group was to withdraw between 2200 hrs and midnight, but he definitely stated that we would receive separate orders, and at 2200 hrs the gunners received their orders by phone to withdraw and left. From then onwards the Colonel was always expecting an LO to arrive.
2230 hrs onwards
All was quite quiet except for occasional shelling. Bn HQ, which had been compelled to move to its alternative position earlier, had now moved back again. This shelling caused many more casualties than we had previously thought but, owing to the intense darkness inside this wood, it was impossible to trace the dead or even some of the wounded. An old French civilian whom we had brought with us, being under suspicion, was killed. I luckily escaped with a blistered foot and a bruised hip due to a fragment cutting through my boot and an even smaller piece in battledress!
The Colonel, realising that no orders had arrived, sent Hutchy back to St-Valéry in order to contact Div. HQ, and find out the situation. Hutchy returned at 0145 hrs not having found Div. HQ, but stated that everyone was going back.
Hutchy and I motored back to St-Valéry for the second time and eventually found a member of the Divisional Staff beside the quay. The whole town was in daylight as a result of burning houses, put on fire by incendiary bombs dropped during the previous morning. I met Brian, who had arrived ready to embark with the Tpt personnel. He was in battledress with a blanket wrapped round him, and very amusing with his comments on the day’s activities. The staff officer told Hutchy that it was quite in order to withdraw the Bn at once, and seemed perplexed as to why we had not already been informed as the zero hour for all units to withdraw was 2200 hrs on the 11th. Hutchy and I returned at once with the message. There was no sign of enemy activity on this road, although the eeriness was rather perturbing.
Whilst Hutchy and I were away, the Colonel sent runners to Companies ordering them to RV at Bn HQ. Four signallers were sent, but there was no receipt of this order, nor did the signallers return. ‘C’ Coy and Bn HQ were ordered to RV in the village.
The previous attempts to contact the forward companies having failed, I asked the Colonel if I could go, and started down the track to ‘A’ Company, but by this time my foot had swollen up and I was very dot-and-carry-one, so I was called back and Jimmy Dunlop was sent. Jimmy only got about 200 yds down this track before he was halted by a German sentry! He dived into the ditch but was shot through the ankle in doing so. However, he did a very fine crawl back to Bn HQ, although he was in very great pain. This information definitely confirmed our suspicion that the enemy had infiltrated between us and the forward Coys.
By the time Jimmy was back, Hutchy and I had returned from St-Valéry with the order to withdraw at once.
The Colonel, Hutchy, Hector and myself walked into the village, where we found Victor Campbell, the Brigade Major of 152 Bde. When he heard that his IO had not contacted us, he walked the whole way from St-Valéry by himself with our orders. He stated that we should have received these orders before 2200 hrs but there had been considerable difficulty in locating us. It was then that I realised how Pte Earle’s existence had been forgotten about. Victor then walked over to the 2nd Seaforth HQ. We offered to send a patrol with him, but he wisely chose to go by himself.
The Colonel then ordered ‘C’ Coy, HQ Coy and Bn HQ personnel to move back to St-Valéry. These parties were taken by Capt. F.J. Colville and Capt. Christie respectively. He also ordered Hutchy to take Jimmy Dunlop, RSM Titley and myself back in his truck. Titley and I were lame and Jimmy was a stretcher case.
As a final effort to gain contact with the forward companies, the Colonel sent out a fighting patrol consisting of twelve men commanded by PSM Dingwall, and he gave Dingwall very explicit orders to try all three roads leading to the forward companies and finally to report back to Bn HQ, where the Colonel remained for well over an hour entirely by himself.
PSM Dingwall returned to the Colonel to report that he had not been able to succeed in his mission. As a result of this, the Colonel was convinced that these Companies had been rounded up and captured during the 2200 hrs attack. Thus, feeling satisfied in his own mind that everything possible had been done, he proceeded to move back with Dingwall’s patrol to St-Valéry.
The Colonel and PSM Dingwall’s patrol had only gone about 400 x down the coast road towards St-Valéry when they were fired at. They moved off the road and tried to reach St-Valéry by the cliff route, but discovered that they were completely surrounded by tanks and were therefore compelled to surrender.
As it was now getting light, OC ‘D’ Coy sent 2/Lt. Rhodes back to Bn HQ to try and make contact. He returned in the Colonel’s car and reported rightly that the wood was deserted except for the remnants of ‘A’ Echelon transport, valises etc. Stuart Aylmer, OC ‘A’ Coy, and John Stansfeld then held a brief conference on the best way of withdrawing. It was decided that ‘D’ Coy should go on foot to St-Valéry, approaching the town via the Néville Road, and that ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘D’ Coy of the Norfolks should all RV at Bn HQ then withdraw along the coast road into St-Valéry. These companies all met the same fate as the Colonel and ran into the enemy tanks. John Stansfeld’s Company, going the same way as Hutchy and I went in our final journey, managed to reach St-Valéry without casualties. During the withdrawal of the three others there were a few casualties, amongst whom was Colin Dennistoun Sword, who was badly wounded in both legs. These three Companies passed Bn HQ at 0700 hrs approx. and were compelled to surrender at 0730 hrs when within 1½ miles of St-Valéry. Johnny Rhodes with a few men of ‘A’ Coy did a mechanical run, making use of the Colonel’s car and the remaining tpt at Bn HQ, and in a ‘gangster style’ got through to the harbour. It was a damn fine effort and it was a pity that it resulted in this capture about 1½ hours later, when the French surrendered. I think the enemy paid little attention to Motor Transport moving to and from St-Valéry, but concentrated entirely on rounding up marching personnel. Otherwise I don’t see how Hutchy and I could have succeeded in making those nocturnal journeys without being caught.
It is difficult to find out what happened to ‘C’ Company but I gather that they marched down this coast road and were captured in the same manner as the others. Of course, it was not light when they set off, and Freddy, not knowing the extent of opposition, obviously put up a fight for it and was killed by a burst of machinegun fire. Pierre Boudet was badly wounded, but got through with a few men. I imagine what little was left of this Company must have surrendered at about 0300 hrs. Pierre was most eulogistic about Freddy and told me when I met him in hospital that he had put up a wonderful show. I only wish I had more details.
Hector brought Bn HQ and HQ Coy back across country and cut down onto the Néville Road, reaching St-Valéry at 0400 hrs approx. There were no casualties. As no one knew where the enemy were strongest, each company chose its own way back in the hopes of getting some through.
Hutchy and I left by PO at 0245 hrs with Jimmy and RSM Titley on board. When we met the forked roads marked ‘Y’ (see sketch, plate xiii not available), we saw white Very lights being fired in front of us, so decided to take the right fork and enter St-Valéry via the railway. We got through successfully and only the stray shot was fired in our direction; I presume the main firing was at ‘C’ Company. We reached St-Valéry at 0315 hrs approx. and, after leaving Jimmy at the MDS, reported at the Station Yard as ordered. The whole area was absolutely packed with troops. We met Hector here with his 65 men and also Colonel Henry Swinburne the GI. All troops were ordered into the wood on the main road leading to Veules Les Roses, which had been designated as a ‘Divisional Hide’ for the day, it being hoped that an embarkation would be effected that night.
‘D’ Coy joined us at 0800 hrs approx. At about this time the Divisional Commander sent for Hutchy and told him firstly that there was now no hope and small parties could do their best to get away provided an officer was left with the remainder. On these instructions Hutchy made arrangements for us all to go, and tried to wireless the Navy to take us off from Veules. In the middle of these preparations, however, the Divisional Commander’s order was countermanded and we were now told to try and put the eastern part of the town in a state of defence and that we would fight our way to the ships that night. We obeyed these orders and started ‘digging in’, also fortifying houses with sandbags etc. The local Gendarmerie was made into Bn HQ and had an LMG pointing out of every window!
We fed the men from our enormous supply of rations that we found lying about and at 0930 hrs returned to our HQ, where we sat down to eat a few dry biscuits and some sardines. All the four of us, ‘Hutchy’, ‘Hector’, ‘Titch’ Campbell and self were by this time absolutely exhausted and we fell asleep sitting up with half-eaten biscuits in our hands. One hour later at 1030 we were aroused by the entry of a German soldier. The division had surrendered.
At the end of the war Taylor remained in Germany, becoming Lt. Col. before returning to Warwickshire in the early 50's where he became a director at Flowers brewery (his wife was Heather Flower whose brother, Dennis Flower, was a friend from POW days and was MD of his family brewery in Stratford on Avon). Taylor retired in the early 60's but continued farming (Warwickshire then Devon), hunting, fishing, and shooting. Lt. Col. Taylor died aged 70 in 1986.