War Diary

War Diary of Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis

Page 12

Withdrawal from the Somme

About 2 am on 5th June the remaining Companies had all turned up.  As usual, it was pitch dark and a good deal of confusion reigned.  Orders had now been changed and we were told to go to a place called Limeaux.  Accordingly, Shaw Mackenzie (now in command of the Battalion) took Ronnie Pelham-Burn and I off in his car to reconnoitre Limeaux and told George Baird to march the Battalion out there.  Dodging a few stray shells on the way there - I suspect that some of them were French ones falling short as usual - we reached Limeaux just as it was getting light.  It was a small, tumbledown village, completely deserted, and for some reason had obviously been rather badly dive-bombed.  There were enormous craters all round it and one or two actually in the village.  A French battery, situated on a hill just south of the village, was firing full blast as we motored in, and soon was replied to by the Germans and a pretty heave artillery duel took place.  It seemed a very unhealthy spot to put the Bn. in and Shaw was rather worried about the whole thing.  However, as we waited and watched the German guns lifted and the shells went screaming well over the village, landing some distance away. The French battery must have been hit, as they ceased firing very suddenly and everything became very quiet.  The Battalion was well on its way now, therefore it would have been useless to get in touch with Brigade and report this rather unpleasant situation, as Shaw wanted to do.  We made what preparations we could for their arrival and did a recce of our various Company positions and waited for them to arrive.

[Much has happened since I last wrote this account (about two months ago).  The 'invasion' has been going eleven days and Hitler has used his much vaunted secret weapon (a rocket pilotless plane) on the South of England.  More locally, The Beverage (?) has gone and our garden is growing!]

We had been told that there were French troops holding a line in front of us, therefore there was no immediate danger of being attacked.  However, this proved later to be quite inaccurate!

Eventually the Battalion arrived.  By this time the majority of them were in a very weary state and many completely all in.  However, there was nothing for it but to get the men down again to the unceasing task of digging.  So, while the cooks were preparing breakfast, the whole Company dug their positions.  Just as I was in the middle of withdrawing the Company in relays from their digging tasks for breakfast, Shaw Mackenzie came running down the road saying that a message had come from Brigade to the effect that the enemy had launched an attack and that the thin line of troops on our front had been driven back and an attack was imminent.  He only had time to point in the direction of the wood at the back of the village and say, "Go up there and take up a position immediately;  our orders are that we must hold on at all costs!"  The position was not cheerful.  The men had had no sleep for 48 hours and had little or no rest since the attack the previous morning.  Added to this, many of the Jocks had not had a hot meal since the abortive attack on the Abbeville bridgehead.  Written down in so many words, it strikes me that this all sounds rather a "moan" but I want to convey a true picture of the conditions at the time.  

Incidentally, I never heard so much as a single word of protest from any of the Jocks - ever - however hard the conditions were.  We immediately left our positions and went over to the wood pointed out by Shaw and dug furiously, expecting to be attacked at any minute.  We were assisted considerably in this work as there were stacks of cut wood lying about and we used them as breastworks for the trenches.  Having worked at this for an hour, a message came from Bn. HQ saying that I was to withdraw my Company back to the village again, where I should receive further orders.  So we moved once more.

It now appeared that the situation was not so serious as at first thought, and orders were issued from the Battalion to take up new positions to the south of the village.

Meanwhile, the remnants of 'B' Company (Simon Fraser's), which had been cut up badly in the attack on 4th June, were attached to my Company, also their only surviving officer, Hector.  This made a big difference as it brought the strength of my Company up to about 70 or 80 as far as I can remember, but I was still terribly short of NCOs.  We moved off to our new positions amid sporadic firing from our front.  Once again we dug and this time we were left in our positions long enough to complete our tasks.  By 3 pm (this was 5th June) things were comparatively quiet and remained so for some hours.

About 5 pm seven or eight enemy bombers flew low over us and proceeded to divebomb one of our battery positions about two miles to our rear.  I had a ringside seat as their target was across some flat, open fields.  Except for the droning noise made when they dived, it was exactly like hawks attacking something on the ground!  It was alarming to watch but I heard afterwards they did surprisingly little damage.

Later in the evening an enemy reconnaissance plane came over very low indeed and flew leisurely round and round in circles looking at,our positions, which annoyed us a lot.  A good deal of small arms fire was expended at it as it looked such an easy target, but with no effect whatever, so presumably it was heavily armoured.  During all these days I didn't see a sign of a British or French plane of any sort.

It was a glorious evening and all we had to do was sit and wait, keeping an eye open for the Bosch.  I saw one lot of about 50 marching over some open ground, in fours, in their greatcoats, about a mile away - a wonderful target for a machine gun but unfortunately none was at hand.

From time to time reports came in from my platoons that they had seen Germans in the immediate vicinity, some as close as 600 yards, but as their movements were extremely cautious and positions well concealed, no good targets were presented.  However, it was obvious that they were filtering in preparation to making an attack.

I took a walk down to Bn. HQ with Ronnie Pelham-Burn.  It was situated in a large beech wood about half a mile away.  They all seemed in good form and I was delighted to see a meal was being prepared and shortly being sent out to the Companies.

On my return journey to my Company I was surprised to see a stretcher being carried through the wood.  On it was my driver, "Boots" Macdonald, who I had left half an hour ago sitting in my truck.  Apparently, in getting out of the truck, he had caught his leg in the sling of his rifle, presumably loaded with the safety catch forward, and it had gone off and the bullet had passed through his knee joint.  Duncan Macrae, our MO, took a serious view of the wound and he proved to be right, as I heard after capture that Macdonald had lost his leg, but had got home.  I satisfied myself that it was not a s.i. (self-inflicted) wound but a genuine accident!

As evening wore on things remained uncannily quiet, although we knew the enemy was very close.  At 11 pm orders came saying that I was to withdraw my Company to Bn. HQ and thence to a place called Ramburelles.

I had been stupid enough to forget until now that I had no driver for my truck now that Macdonald had gone.  I therefore put Hector in charge of it and gave him instructions to drive it round by road (I was taking the Company across country) to Bn. HQ, but not to start the engine until we had left, as I had had orders that as we were in such close contact with the enemy the withdrawal must take place in complete silence.

The withdrawal took place successfully, without incident, and we reached Bn. HQ to find the other Companies just coming in.  Finally the Battalion moved off.  R A A S Macrae did magnificent work leading us over completely trackless country on one of the blackest nights I've ever experienced.  From the little one could see, we appeared to be going across country that had been shelled or bombed, as we were continually crossing large craters and climbing over fallen trees etc.  Eventually we reached a road and the going became easier.  I was by now exhausted and three-quarters asleep so I don't remember being conscious much of my surroundings!  I can only remember that we were joined by a great many other troops - Black Watch, Gordons, Camerons and French gunners, and the column got larger and larger.  By now there were looks of utter exhaustion on everyone's faces and, on many, dejection.  A squadron of German fighters flew low over the column and fired a few bursts, but I don't think anyone was hit, and they continued on their way.  This behaviour of German planes was to be a feature of the days to come. They appeared to take surprisingly little interest in such excellent targets as long columns of troops and vehicles on the march.  I suppose by now they knew our inevitable end and that their net was being drawn closer and closer, and preferred to have prisoners rather than corpses!

After a longish march we reached Ramburelles village at about 5 am on 5th June.  Here we learned that the Battalion was to be held in Brigade reserve and that the men were to be rested as much as possible.  There were still a few inhabitants in the village but I got the men into two or three unoccupied houses and two barns.  They needed no encouragement to lie down and sleep!

By this time I was ravenous and wanted food even more than sleep.  However, I had not seen any signs of Hector since I left him with my truck and by this time was rather anxious about where he was.  Just as Andre Jourde and I were setting off in search of him, he turned up with rather a long face.  I wondered what was up and he explained that he had lost my truck and all my personal belongings!  Apparently what happened was this.  My 8 cwt was always rather a brute to start, and when we had withdrawn from our last position, try as he might he couldn't get a spark out of the engine and, having no one with him, he eventually had to abandon it.  He apparently thought of setting it on fire but decided against this as it would give our position aweay.  He had his own equipment etc to carry and therefore could carry no more.  Hence I lost everything I had except what I stood up in and my map and a few papers!  I was annoyed at the time but during the next week we all lost everything we had so it wasn't a very great hardship.  However, things that I valued most like G's letters and photographs (Gillian "Gosh" Mitford, later Troughton, to whom PM was engaged at this time) were gone forever and, by no means least important, a case of sherry and one of whisky!  It made me furious to think of the delight of some fat Hun finding all these things intact.  Another loss of great value to me was Uncle Hector's badge in my Glengarry which had been all through the last War.  I wonder if I shall ever hear of any of them again?

We hadn't far to search for food as, to our astonishment, we found a cafe in the village open and apparently still functioning, in spite of there being firing not a mile away.  We had a mammoth omelette of every egg the old woman who owned the place had left (23!), which she seemed delighted to give us.  This was washed down with large bowls full of very arabica coffee.  Quite a lot of locals were in the cafe and asked us whether they ought to leave.  When we said they most certainly ought to, there were the usual babbling discussions, then a tirade against "les salles Bosches" and the wails and moans while they packed up or went off to their houses.

I had previously noted down a house where I was to have my Company HQ but hadn't been inside it yet, so when we had finished eating, I thought I had better go and inspect it.  It was on the side of the main road (Route Nationale) which ran through the south end of the village.  As we were approaching the house, a French paila (?) came up to us and asked if he could borrow a bicycle as he had lost his battalion who had gone on ahead and he wanted to catch them up.  He was very different to the usual run of French soldiers as he was clean and smartly dressed.  He had a fine looking face and wore a very large but well clipped jet black beard and moustache.  I then discovered that he was a priest who had been conscripted.  I was sorry I couldn't help him as he was obviously quite genuine, and he went on his way.

The house I had chosen for my HQ was quite a large, prosperous-looking house standing back off the road, in its own grounds with a walled garden at the back.  I thought at first it was empty.  However, I thought I had better ring the bell rather than walk straight in, in case there was someone living there.  After a considerable pause, I heard shuffling footsteps and a woman of about 60 came to the door and opened it a couple of inches and said more or less, "The owners are away, I'm the caretaker and what the hell do you want?" - or words to that effect.  I was tired and didn't feel like an argument so merely explained that I wanted the house for my HQ and that, in case she didn't know, the Germans weren't more than a mile or so away.  This didn't seem to worry her at all and, after a lot of grumbling, she opened the door and let me in.  I discovered the house was built in three parts, only the centre part, which contained three bedrooms upstairs and a bare, unfurnished livingroom downstairs, being open.  The parts on either side were locked up.  Without a single word more, but giving me an old-fashioned and suspicious look, the caretaker retired into what I suppose were the servants' quarters and firmly locked the door behind us.  I daresay a few hours later she didn't have such an easy time with the Huns.  Everything in the house that could be locked was locked, also the walled garden and garage.  I got my HQ staff settled in and got two hours' sleep before orders came saying that 4 Camerons were being heavily engaged on our right and that the enemy had broken through the Gordons on our left.  Accordingly, I got the Company out again and sent the platoons off to their positions and put a squad on to blocking all roads into the village.  I remember one block we put up consisted of a circular saw, an anvil, an old motor car, four barrels of tar and a plough!  How puny our efforts seem now since the tremendous expansion and mechanisation of the army during the past four years!

Periodically during the morning wounded from the Gordons and Camerons came through the village and from their stores these units seemed to be having a fairly rough time.

At 2 pm our carrier platoon and a platoon of MGs were sent to give support to the Camerons and did some very good work.

The village was shelled spasmodically and one landed uncomfortably close to my HQ but no signs of an immediate attack could be seen.  All day German planes flew low over us with impunity, which was very demoralising for the troops.

At 9 pm, the Battalion withdrew across the river Bresle, and we left in the dusk.  The whole countryside to the north of Ramburelles was lit up by a wood and several farms blazing, which must have been set on fire by bombing or shelling.

Again we had a long march over a road we knew well - the one we had come up from Rouem.  On arrival at Blangy about midnight, the chaos was something to be seen or, rather felt as it was pitch dark, to be believed.  There must have been thousands of troops going through that small town and hundreds of refugees.  As we struggled through we passed, or were passed by, French troops of every description, horsed batteries of gunners, mechanised batteries, tanks, black Moroccan troops, and French infantry, not to mention enormous farm wagons, perambulators etc of the panic-stricken refugees.  In fact complete chaos seemed to reign amongst the French.

Fortunately it was a beautiful starry night with no moon and quite cool, which made marching easier.  Once again the Jocks were magnificent and, although many had reached a point which was almost beyond human endurance, they kept going and kept together.

The streams of refugees was a most pitiful sight.  I felt sorry for them but I felt far more sorry for their wretched horses.  Farm carts were piled high with belongings, all carrying loads which were much too heavy for the poor horses.  In spite of their own exhaustion the Jocks, whenever we came to a hill, always seemed to be able to summon up sufficient energy to help some old woman push her perambulator full of goods or put their shoulders to the back of a farm cart and give the horses a help.

Eventually we reached Star Fish crossroads where we halted, and the hundreds of refugees streamed on into the night towards Rouen.  Here we rested for the night and following day.  On our arrival it was found that all our Battalion transport, which we had supposed we should find waiting for us, had disappeared and therefore there was no food to give the men.  However, they were located later and it was found that the woods they had been in at Star Fish crossroads had been bombed by German planes and they had had a rough time and so moved.

The following day was uneventful and most of it was spent reorganising the very depleted Companies.  Some had the luck to see a British fighter plane shoot down a couple of Bosch.  This gave a tremendous uplift to the troops and they felt that perhaps the Germans weren't getting it all their own way after all.

Late in the afternoon orders came from Brigade to the effect that the Battalion would be moved north that night, after dark, by MT, to a place called Le Treport.  However, as we half expected, no transport arrived and the Battalion started marching to our next destination - Courville (Ourville?) - some 20 miles away.  The carrier platoon was sent on ahead to form road blocks and picquets on the enemy side of our route.  We had not been marching for long when a German plane flew over us.  Whether they were trying to locate our movements or not, I don't know, but the plane gave off an amazingly bright light which lit up the countryside for miles around and seemed to last for about 10 minutes.

Ronnie P-B went on ahead to make arrangements for the Battalion at Courville.

Just before dawn we appeared to be marching along a road running parallel with a low range of hills, on the other side of which there appeared to be a tremendous battle going on.  This surprised us as we had thought the enemy was in quite another direction!  But by now we knew practically nothing of the situation and Brigade seemed to know very little more.

As we entered Courville at about 6 am we met the 2nd Battalion which had just arrived from another direction.  I saw Phip (Philip Mitford) for a minute or two and he was looking desperately tired and almost completely all in.  The responsibility of the position of Adjutant to a Battalion at the very early age of 22 in peacetime is big enough but how much greater in wartime - and I have heard from all sides how magnificently he did this job.  As we passed the 2nd Seaforths we picked up wild rumours about embarking for home, and visions of a meal, bath and a drink in London in the next few days were conjured up!  But none of us took the stories too seriously, fortunately.

By now it was quite light and, on reaching the far end of the village of Courville, we found the transport promised for the previous night waiting for us! In spite of our Battalion position being only a short distance down the road, it was a very welcome rest to be ferried in these lorries the remaining distance down the road.  The Battalion "hide" was in a large beechwood above Courville.  Just as the tail of the column was disappearing into the wood, another German reconnaissance plane appeared out of a cloudless sky and made a few leisurely circles above us and then flew off.

Once in the wood, I immediately made the men take off their equipment and lie down and sleep, which was all most of them were fit for.  I then got a few volunteers to start digging slit trenches in case we were bombed.  This was a damnable task in a wood, digging amongst enormous roots.

Later, I was sent one officer and 20 men who had recently come out to France as reinforcements.  The officer was Willie Moore, son of the minister in Wick, who had been with me in Bodon (Bridge of Don Barracks?) before we came out.

After the Company had had a rest and breakfast had been issued, I left them in charge of Moore, digging as usual, and went off in search of food myself.  Hec and I picked up Andre Jourde on our way and eventually found an uninhabited farmhouse just outside the wood.  All the CQMS were in the farmyard having their breakfast after preparing the troops' breakfasts.  There was great competition in finding eggs amidst squawks and cackles from the indignant hens!  Next operation was to find out if they were good or bad.  This was done by floating them in a well and watching if they sank or floated!  We had an excellent breakfast in the farmhouse kitchen and then wandered about the garden.  Again it was a heavenly morning and the garden was filled with flowers and so like farm gardens at home.

Hec and I returned to the Company and later in the morning I was sent for and told to send out a party of men to search for a parachutist who was reported to have been dropped from a German plane over the wood.  As usual, after an hour's hunt, they returned not having seen a sign of him.

Later in the afternoon orders came for us to move, again by MT, to a place called Bois Robert, near Dieppe.  The name Dieppe made the Jocks boat minded again!  We had been so used to promised transport not turning up that we were all very surprised when some civilian buses and vans did arrive about 5 pm.  We all got in and the convoy started off.  After travelling along secondary roads for some miles, we reached a main road where the convoy was joined by other British and French troops and thousands of refugees in every possible kind of conveyance and many on foot.  It was a perfect summer evening with a clear blue sky, and by the grace of God no enemy bombers came over, as we were the easiest possible target and the results of bombing and machine gunning would have been appalling.

Continued on Page 13
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