War Diary

This diary contains a short account of what happened to my Company, 'C' Company, 4th (Ross-shire) Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders, from the time the Battalion left Bailleul (Pas de Calais) on 24 April 1940 for the Saar, until the final capitulation of the 51st (Highland) Division at St Valery on 12 June 1940.  It was originally written in April 1941 at Laufen, West Bavaria, my first (and worst) prison camp in Germany.  I decided to write it three years later in my third prison camp at Eichstatt, Bavaria.

Patrick Munro
14 March 1944

 

War Diary of Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis

Page 6

The Battalion leaves for Metz

The Battalion left Bailleul for Metz on 24 April 1940-.  We left by train early on a cold, raw morning.  I think we were all glad to be off at last on a definite job, having spent our last few days with everything fully loaded and ready to move at a moment's notice in the event of the Germans invading Belgium.

Some of the 2nd Seaforths who had recently joined the Brigade travelled with us.  It was a tiresome journey and we passed through dull country.  The time was passed by consuming an odd assortment of food and drink, and a non-stop game of poker was kept going in one carriage by Duncan Macrae (our MO), Murdo Maclennan, Walter Mundell, John Anderson, R A A S Macrae, Phip Mitford and I from the moment we got into the train till the moment we got out!

Eventually, after a thirty hour journey, we arrived in pouring rain at the small station of Meziers the following morning at 11 am.  We were met by Alick Cargill on the platform with the unwelcome news that the Battalion had orders to march back to Metz, some eight kilometres away, which we had already passed through in the train.  The 2nd Seaforths had orders to remain at Meziers.  So back we marched to Metz through pouring rain along the usual poplar lined Route Nationale and arrived at a large Barracks on the outside of Metz which were known as Les Quatiers des Valliers.

These Barracks, which had been built by the Germans prior to 1914, were occupied by a hundred or so British troops of various Regiments, most of them either going or coming from home, under a garrison Adjutant, a Captain in the Ulster Rifles whose name I have forgotten.  It was a pleasant surprise to find that they were fairly clean although more or less unfurnished.  We had plenty of space, so, having got the Jocks fairly comfortably settled in, I went off in search of my own billet.  I had a choice of three and decided on quite a nice little house about five minutes walk from the Barracks.  It was in an attractive situation, the back looking out on to a hill covered with vines and gardens, and my bedroom in front, overlooking the town of Metz with the three spires of the Cathedral dominating the whole countryside.  Duncan Macrae was living in the house immediately opposite and across the street and we carried on conversations through our respective bedroom windows whilst shaving in the mornings!

All the officers fed in a central Mess in the Barracks which, although it looked like a glorified soda fountain, must have been a French officers' Mess in peacetime.  Most of the time here was spent in cleaning up and sorting out equipment and drill parades for the men, while the officers did various reconnaissances of the positions we were to take over from the French in the battle area.  One morning some of us drove out to a very anqiquated range near the town to fire our revolvers - first time I'd let mine off since 1937, I think!

While we were there I went into Metz several times.  It was a lovely old town which was approached across several bridges over the Mosel river.  Built on a series of hills, it is a network of narrow, winding streets and extremely difficult to find one's way about in.  The shops were grand, and at that time life there seemed very gay and normal with all the cafes open and lots of smartly dressed women and French and British officers walking about and having drinks outside the cafes in the warm spring sunshine.  We used to take a truck in after tea, do some shopping and went to the main hotel, L'hotel Royal, where we had a bath and spent an hour or so drinking champagne cocktails in the bar. A very aged French general, who was the Commandant of Metz Garrison and who must have been at least 70, was more or less a permanent feature in the bar.  He was always surrounded by his girlfriends of all ages who tweaked his ears and patted him on the head, much to the disapproval of his wife who was usually in the background.  There were several excellent restaurants in the town, our favourite being "Les Nous Enfants" where you could order your meal from a menu a yard long and find it waiting for you the following evening.  Andre Jourde (our liaison officer) and I spent an hour in the Cathedral one day.  It is a nagnificent building and, although most of the stained glass had been taken out of the windows, the interior was most impressive and it had wonderful carving inside and out.  The morning after our arrival in Metz, I was surprised to find a letter written in familiar handwriting with a local postmark.  To my greater surprise and joy, I found it was from Veronica Fraser (Lovat, later married first Phipps, second Fitzroy Maclean) who I thought was still in London.  She said she had a job as a nurse in a French hospital at Ay, quite close to Metz.  The letter had actually been written a week earlier saying that she had heard that "the Seaforths were coming to Metz".  So much for security in France!  We ourselves were not supposed to know our destination even twelve hours before leaving Bailleul !

Next day I motored over to see her.  Veronica greeted me on arrival and I thought she looked tired and overworked but she was in great form.  The hospital, which was in a chateau, was run by a French Countess out of her private income.  She took me over the wards and introduced me to some of the patients, two of which were badly wounded Black Watch men.  The establishment consisted of French nurses and French army doctors (Veronica was the only English woman in the place) and the ambulance drivers were an amazing collection of American, Peruvian, Chilean etc.  They were apparently a collection of adventurer playboys who had bought their own ambulances and were giving their services free.  They lived a completely hand-to-mouth existence in some farm buildings near the chateau.  Veronica took me down to tea with them and we had a meal (mostly out of Fortnum & Mason and Macey tins) of caviar, fried eggs, pate, tea, champagne, toast etc!   They turned out to be a charming collection and were doing a fine job.  I left Veronica's hospital with promises to come back and take her out to dinner in Metz one night.  But I never saw her again as she moved at short notice.  I heard afterwards in captivity from her saying that she had just managed to get out and back to England by a narrow margin when the Blitz came.  On my way back, I looked in on 2nd Seaforths at Meziers and found that Phip was ill.  I went round to his billet and found him propped up in bed with a streaming cold and being looked after by the faithful Pte. Stows!  However, his unfailing charm had done the trick very quickly and the owners of the house, especially the daughter, couldn't do too much for him and he was being plied with hot drinks and food.  I sat on his bed and talked to him for an hour and then motored back to Battacks.

I remember an incident which deeply impressed me at the time while on one of our reconnaissances with the CO in the Saar battle area.  We were looking at some poksitions near a deserted village called Chemery.  We had walked through the village which was an indescribable mess of filth and dirt, having been recently occupied by French troops since the outbreak of War.  It was a tiny village of some 20 cottages but they had managed to collect enough money amongst themselves to put up a plain stone cross in the middle of the village with the inscription "Grace a Dieu, Sept 1938", obviously in thankfulness for Munich and knowing, had war come, their little village would have been obliterated.  Actually it was later, when we withdrew behind the Maginot and the village was shelled to bits by the Maginot guns.  After we had been at Quartier des Vaillers a week, the order came for us to move forward.  That evening, just as it was getting dark, we paraded as a Battalion for the last time under the CO and marched off with the pipes playing.

The Battalion moves forward of the Maginot Line

We left about 7 pm and marched some 16 kilometres in a thunderstorm and blinding rain to a village called Vigy.  There the Battalion stopped the night in various barns and houses.  The officers all slept in one large room at the back of a cafe.  We were very cramped and there was pretty good chaos, as we discovered later that there was a French sergeants' Mess installed in the same building!  We were now only allowed to move at night, so the following day the Jocks amused themselves by dancing reels and country dances in the village street, much to the amazement of the inhabitants!

That night we moved again, stopping at a village called Ebbersvillers.  The Jocks' billets were much the same here while the officers' ones were a distinct improvement.  David Murray (who had been a Subaltern in my Company since we came to France) and I shared a room in quite a good sized house.  The owner, a woman of about 60, spoke to us through half-opened doors, so we didn't see much of her.  My Company officers (David Murray and Smith) and I shared a Mess with Simon Fraser and his Company in a farmhouse.  The owners had evidently had warning of our arrival as, when we knocked on the door about midnight, Madame and daughter were waiting for us.  They were both charming.  Madame could only speak German but had no love for that race!  However, her daughter, Marie Louise, spoke both German and French, so we fixed things up through her.  She was about 18, with jet black hair and large, sparkling, brown eyes, attractive and bubbling over with excitement at our arrival.  Almost the first thing she asked was whether we had a doctor with us.  We produced Duncan Macrae, who happened to be with us, whereupon, without the slightest hesitation or false modesty, she drew upm her skirt and showed him a large mosquito bite above her knee, all the while pouring out a long and more or less unintelligible explanation, half in German and half in French, punctuated by shrieks of laughter.  This was a situation Duncan was more than capable of dealing with and he played up well, and from then onwards we more or less had a free run of the house.  They gave us their parlour with an excellent cooking stove for our Mess and we were very comfortable.  For some unknown reason Marie Louise took a great fancy to me and it wasn't long before she was pouring out her private woes!  She told me she was "betrothed" to a sergeant in the Maginot Line who her Pa and Ma wanted her to marry but whom she didn't care for at all, and what was she to do about it?  I didn't know what the answer to this one was and managed to sidetrack it!  We only saw Monsieur once.  He was some sort of railway official and spoke only German.  He didn't like us and was at no pains to conceal his dislike.  We suspected, perhaps quite wrongly, that he was pro-Bosch.

It was lovely country in this district, big green fields and rolling valleys, and large beech forests.  It must have looked its best at this time of year (late April,  early May) with all the flowers out in their gardens and fields.

The day after we arrived David Murray left for home with a threatened appendix, which was the luckiest thing that ever happened to him in his life as he never returned to us, and in consequence avoided four or more years as a prisoner of war!  When he left I took on his batman, Pte. Barkley, as my own.  Pte. Forsyth, who had been with me since coming to France, had gone sick at Vigy and had been sent back to Metz in an ambulance to recover.

Whilst in this village, we got an interesting sideline on the tremendous faith the French had in the Maginot Line.  In spite of the village being well within range of German long range artillery (they later even shelled Metz, 25 kilometres further south), and being only about six kilometres behind the Maginot line, none of the inhabitants ever gave a thought to the possibility of evacuation, if you suggested it to them;  they merely smiled and said 'but we have the Maginot in front of us'.

We spent two days at Ebbersvillers and while we were there we motored up and made several reconnaissances of the positions we were to take over from the French.  The actual battle area consisted of four lines.  Firstly, the 'Ligne de Contact' which, as its name implied, was in actual touch with the enemy.  Secondly, the 'Ligne de Recoile' some four kilometres behind.  Thirdly, the 'Ligne d'Arret' and, finally, the much advertised 'Ligne Maginot'.  It was all very impressive and formidable looking - on paper.  When referring to these lines, the magic word that was on every French officer's lips was "project".  There was a project for everything, all beautifully drawn out on maps and plans, and occasionally even marked out on the actual ground by sticks and tapes.  But, except for the Ligne de Contact, which was extremely haphazard and less than half finished, there wasn't so much as a scrap to be seen on the actual positions.  The principle the French went on was:  let sleeping dogs lie, or if we don't worry the Bosch then they won't worry us, and on the whole it worked.  It was all a most false and unnatural state of affairs.  To further explain it, the following might be of interest and possibly amusement.
 
The Major commanding the French Battalion who we were to take over from, told us that one of his Company posts was in a certain village.  He said that for the first night or so they had been bothered by an enemy patrol who took the same route and always passed through the same house at the end of the village at the same hour.  We actually asked him if he sent out a patrol to shoot them up.  He replied in all seriousness, "But no, we simply locked the doors of the house and that stopped them"!  We were also amazed to find that the electric light supply to some of the villages on the French side which still worked actually came from an area held by the Germans!  The French further told us that, on a certain part of the front that was overlooked by the Germans, only one ration lorry per day was allowed to pass, and that only between 5 and 6 pm, but that if more than one tried to pass, or at a different hour, it would be fired on by the Germans.  We tried it on our first day in that particular sector and, sure enough, it was quite true!

Eventually, after two days, we left Ebbersvillers having said goodbye to Madame and Marie Louise, who kept some of my laundry in pawn, so as I should have to go back and collect it!  We marched up to the Ligne de Recoile by night.  My Company was allotted an area just outside a village called Neudorff.  I had gone on ahead and Smith, my only Subaltern, had brought the Company on.  It was midnight, one of the blackest nights I've ever experienced, when they arrived.  As no lights whatever were allowed, it took over an hour to sort them all out.  No positions at all had been dug by the French and, as we were not in actual contact with the enemy, it was unnecessary for the whole Company to man the positions.  The only shelter available was in ten wooden army huts in the middle of a large beech wood, and these were full of anti-tank mines!  I had been told that these were naturally not primed and were quite safe, but the French had cheerfully told us that the Germans occasionally dropped the odd shell in that area, and that if a stray one did happen to hit one of the huts, the whole lot would probably go up simultaneously.  However, I took a chance on that and put the men in them and dossed down for rather an unhappy night on a heap of anti-tank mines!  Next morning the Brigadier (Herbert Stewart) came to see me and suggested that we moved back into the village of Neudorff, half a mile or so further back, which we did with a good deal of relief!

The village was occupied by a Bn. of French troops who, to my joy, were packing up to leave.  They eventually cleared off in the afternoon, leaving only a battery of Colonial Gunners commanded by a Captain and two Subalterns.  They were Algerians and all, except the officers, coal black.  Actually, they were very fine looking chaps, all of magnificent physique and very much better dressed than the average French troop - and all with bare feet!  The Jocks were very intrigued by them, but found it rather upsetting when the blacks would lean up against a doorway, motionless, and follow them down the streets with their enormous eyes!

The Company spent the afternoon cleaniong up the village, which had been left in an appalling mess by the French, and, having made several houses more or less habitable, I got the men in.

Smith and I had a room each in a house above the French officers' Mess and, although they offered us the use of the Mess, we thought it would be easier if we fed on our own, and found a couple of adequate rooms to cook and feed in in the house next door where we also put our batmen and Campbell, my cook.

The village, which was evacuated of all civilians, was small and attractive.  About twenty houses on either side of the village street, one pump being its only water supply.  The gardens were full of lilac and spring flowers and the village surrounded by orchards and small fields.

During the day I put the Company on to working on the undug positions we had taken over from the French.  By night, half the Company occupied these positions while the other half came back to billets.  In the mornings I normally motored round to Bn. HQ, picking up Ronnie Pelham-Burn on my way.  He lived in a village called Bibiche with his Company, about three miles from me.

Bn. HQ was situated in an old, disused, powder factory.  Across country it was only about two miles;  by road about five or six miles.  It was an interesting road, parts of which lookeded right over to the Bosch positions some five miles away.  The most exposed parts of it were camouflaged with canvas screening, which seemed to be fairly effective. There was one particular corner called 'Windy Corner'.  Here the road went almost into the town of Bouzenville and then turned sharp right for the south.  Several Bosch shells had landed round about this turning, so one didn't waste much time passing this particular spot.

Bouzenville was an extraordinary place.  It was a town of some seven or ten thousand inhabitants which had been evacuated on the outbreak of War.  Out of curiosity I went into it once.  One had a most curious feeling in this place.  It was completely deserted and, in the main street, there was not a sound or a movement, except for an occasional stray and hungry looking cat crossing the street.  It must have been evacuated in a hurry as many of the shop windows still had produce and goods of various sorts in them.  A main road and railway line ran through it.  I didn't stay there long as it had been reported that German patrols visited it and occasionally inhabited it.  The whole place was extremely eerie, watching one the whole time!

The powder factory was well sited for a Bn. HQ.  It was approached by a narrow road off the main Metz-Bouzenville road and had been built in a clearing of large beech forest between two hills.  The office and CO and Adjutants' quarters were in what must have been the manager's house at one time, while the men, transport, QM stores etc were tucked away in kind of casements dug into the sides of banks or covered with earth. One had to cross a small stream to get to the Bn. office.  In this stream the French had rigged up rather an amusing figure called "Hitler's punishment".  This was a small figure of Hitler cut out of tin and painted.  The figure was winding a wheel and was rigged up to work by the flow of the stream and, in consequence, worked non-stop day and night!

While at Bn. HQ we usually discussed various questions and did odd jobs such as collecting the mail etc.  One day an incident happened which luckily turned out to be amusing but which might have turned out to be tragic.  Andre Jourde, whose bedroom was immediately above the CO's office, was having a look at his revolver and was apparently handling it fully loaded.  There was a loud report and a bullet came through the floor and missed Harry Houldsworth's head by inches and finally lodged in the wall.

Smith and I got on very well with the two French gunner officers who were billeted in Neudorff and often wandered in and had drinks with them in their Mess.

We never quite discovered on what principle, and when, they fired their guns but, several times when we were sitting talking to them in their Mess, one or other of them would suddenly jump to his feet and say, "S'il vous plait, un moment, je vais tirer", whereupon he would dash outside and a moment later there would be a shattering report and he would come back beaming all over, sit down and continue the conversation as if nothing had happened!  This performance happened at any hour of the day and not apparently at any specified time!

One day, with tremendous ceremony, they asked us to come and dine with them in their Mess.  We turned up at 7 pm and were plied with half a dozen kinds of aperitifs.  The meal, which was enormous and extremely well cooked, was served by their black batmen wearing their ordinary uniform and rather grimy white gloves.  We were given masses of pink, sweet champagne during the meal and were in pretty good form when we left about midnight, having cemented the Entente very firmly!  The Algerians were excellent waiters and they told us that they made extremely good and faithful batmen.

It was in this village that we first experienced the amazing number of bird noises in this part of the world which later were to prove the bane of our existence.  The whole countryside was full of nightingales and owls, but in this part especially the former.  They made an astonishing noise at night and, having heard them en masse, I consider them to be very over-rated!

After we had been at Neudorff about five days, I was wakened one morning about 5 am by the roar of engines.  On looking out of my bedroom window, up to a brilliant cloudless sky, I saw about 150 German bombers flying south-west at about 7000 ft - by this we knew that peace, or comparative peace, had ended.  I heard later that morning that Paris had been bombed.

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