War Diary

War Diary of Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis

Page 7

The Blitz begins

At 8 am I got the "Mise en Garde" or French Army signal that the 'balloon had gone up' and that we were to leave billets and man the posts.  Later in the morning I heard that Hitler had invaded Holland and Belgium.  The same old game as 26 years ago.  We all expected it but somehow didn't think it would happen.

All I can remember about the rest of the day was one long rush and one damn thing after another.  There were a thousand and one things to think about and be dealt with. Messages came in every five minutes and orders to be given right, left and centre.  I only had one Subaltern in my Company, which didn't help.  However, the CO sent me up Allan Shearer which relieved things a bit.  Harassed gunners, machine gunners, sappers, anti-tank gunners dashed in and out of my office all day, asking innumerable questions.  Various troops moved into the village, and with the quickening tempo our French gunner friends fired their guns every ten minutes - apparently into the blue!

I moved the platoons out of the village into their positions, and got the Jocks onto completing the various digging tasks they had been working on during the past few days.  They worked magnificently and most of them were dead beat at night.  I kept my office in the village but had an advance HQ with the platoons in case of emergency.  I made my CSM Anderson (late PSI at Invergordon) sleep in the office by the telephone and I took it in turns with Allan Shearer and Smith at night to do duty in advance HQ.

Actually, while we were in these positions we only had one minor alarm.  We heard a considerable amount of firing in front of us on our left, and soon afterwards a message came through to say that enemy tanks had been spotted and that an armoured breakthrough was expected.  However, nothing came of it and I heard afterwards that it had been a small attack by the Lothian and Border Horse on the Bosch lines and nowhere near us.  It should be remembered that in these positions we were not in contact with the enemy and that the 'Ligne de Contact' was some four kilometres in front of us, so that unless there was a large scale attack, or some very enterprising enemy patrol should come our way, there wasn't much chance of seeing a German.  However, at the time we didn't really appreciate this - at least I didn't and we remained ready for action night and day.

After twelve hours the flap died down considerably and things straightened themselves out.  A charming Company Commander of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who were anti-MG Battalion, came to see me.  His name was Dodge (Dodge Motors and a prospective MP for a constituency in Kent) and he had a DSO and MC from the last War.  He asked me if I would house one of his platoon commanders in my office.  This turned out to be a very elderly Subaltern called Salmon who, in spite of being about twice my age, would insist on calling me Sir after every other word!  He turned out to be the most god awful bore as well !  However, as his platoon was attached to my Company, I had to put up with him.  He seemed to know nothing about his job and asked me where he should site all his guns and how and when etc etc.  So, although I knew nothing about machine guns, I had to do his job as well as my own!

One day, Ronnie Pelham-Burn and I motored up to the 'Ligne de Contact' to look at the positions our respect Companies were to take over from the 4th Camerons.  We motored through the outskirts of Bouzenville and two or three miles further on left our truck in a deserted village and started walking.  Eventually we came to the International Post, commanded by a French Captain who had a mixed force of 20-30 French and British troops under his command.  He pointed out the next post and showed us where we had to keep our heads down.  Incidentally, we were wearing steel helmets for the first time with a reason.  The Major commanding the French Battalion which we took over from, and of whom I have spoken previously, had one great watchword.  It was "Toujours portez la casquette" - apparently as long as you did this nothing else mattered.  He kept on repeating this at every possible opportunity!  But to continue.

We reached the next post.  They were all roughly along the line of the road we were walking on, which was commanded by Dubbie Fincastle.  He met us, looking extremely tired, worn and worried, as did his subaltern Willie Robertson, who I met for the first time and who I have since got to know well in prison camps.

It turned out that during the past few days they had had a pretty rough time of it.  They had been attacked several times at night by Bosch patrols who, owing to the particular position of the post, had had it more or less their own way and had sprayed them with Tommy guns and chucked hand grenades more or less with impunity.  Once again, this was a legacy for which we had to thank the French, for never having tried to do anything about it or building suitable posts.

This post, which as far as I can remember was held by about 40 men and two officers, resembled an enlarged rabbit hole.  It was on the edge of a sunken road.  Dug out of the bank on the enemy side, it was a series of trenches about 6 ft deep, with one covered-in dug out.  The trench was far too narrow and it was impossible for two people to pass. The dug out was just large enough to hold ten men, and that very cramped.  The remainder stayed out in the trench all night and manned the post.  Standing up in the trench the men could just see over the top, and the only fire steps there were for the brens.  There was complete chaos, with a shambles of ammunition, grenades, rifles, food, clothing, equipment, cooking utensils etc lying everywhere.  This was entirely due to lack of space.  At the back of the post was the road, and the ground sloped away to a grass field about 100 yards broad, running along the side of a huge beech forest called the Foret de Bouzenville which must have been about 500 acres or more in size.  From this side they had been considerably bothered by snipers, who climbed up trees and took potshots at them both day and night, further adding to their troubles by making it difficult to prepare meals in the open without the risk of casualties.

There was no doubt that the enemy were on top at this particular form of warfare.  Again the French were chiefly to blame by letting them get the initiative from the start.  Further-more, it was fairly certain that the patrols and snipers they used on this part of the front were local men - even some foresters from Metz who had gone over to the Germans on the outbreak of War - who knew the ground perfectly and were skilled in woodcraft.  It was at this post that I got my first experience of bird noises.  We were standing on the road, smoking a cigarette, when suddenly there was a very clear owl call from just inside the wood, quite close.  Dubbie Fincastle and Willie Robertson both immediately stopped talking and looked a bit worried.  We asked them what was up and they explained that the enemy patrols always used various bird calls to communicate with each other and they were so cleverly done that it was impossible to know when it was a patrol and when it was a genuine bird!  As these devils were often up trees and on any side of you, a shot in the back from the wood was always on the cards.

They all looked very tired and wanted sleep badly so we moved on to the next post, which was some 500 yds up the road and was in a small wood called the Tiergarten. This was the post I was taking over, and it was at present being commanded by Raymond Burton.  Here things seemed to be more peaceful and they had had a quiet night.  Usually only one post at a time was attacked by the Germans, and Dubbie had had it the previous night. The rest of the posts spent a fairly peaceful night.  The Tiergarten was an isolated beechwood of about two acres, just off the road.  Here the post, although quite inadequate for the number of men that it was supposed to hold, had been constructed in a considerably better way.  It was sited in a clearing on the edge of the wood overlooking a small valley on to another hill held by the enemy some 700 yards away.  The whole post was some 200 yards in circumference, surrounded by wire. In the middle was the main post, a trench capable of holding 15 men, and there were three other posts round it, about twenty yards away, made of railway sleepers, sandbags, wire and posts.  These had only been partially finished but served as cover if nothing else.  Raymond told us that two nights before they had had a hell of a pasting for about one and a half hours by German mortars, firing 60 rounds per minute off and on, and had then put in an attack with 40-50 men. The Germans had got inside the wire, and as it was a pitch black night chaos reigned until the raid was over.  At the end of it, the Camerons found that they had had fairly heavy casualties, amongst which four men had been taken prisoner.  Another four had had a lucky escape, having been blown clean out of their post and knocked unconscious.  The Bosch, thinking they were dead, had left them;  however they came round alright in the morning!  The Camerons thought that they had inflicted casualties on the Germans, but it was usually impossible to tell as they always made very great efforts to take all their dead and wounded back with them on these night raids.  This post was by way of being a Company post.  However, having had a good look round, I decided that it was suicide to have more than a platoon at the most in it.  It appeared to be remarkably peaceful that morning with the warm sun shining through the trees and the birds singing.  Raymond Burton said he was sure we were in for a peaceful time, having just had a big raid on the post - however that remained to be seen!  Ronnie and I returned to our Companies.

Two days afterthe 'Mise en Garde', orders came for the Battalion to move up to the 'Ligne de Contact' to relieve the 4th Camerons, we ourselves being relieved by 2nd Seaforths. Godfrey Murray came up to see me and I handed over my Company position to him.

It was arranged that the Company commanders should go up the night before with a small advance guard and take over while the Battalion were to march up the following day.  Ronnie P-B and I went over to Battalion HQ for final orders, taking our advance parties (NCO and four men, I think) with us.  We found Harry Houldsworth rather harrowed with so many people asking so many questions and he was suffering from lack of sleep.  However, he was his usual patient, smiling self and had everything well under control.  He gave us orders to meet him and the Battalion at a certain RV at 9 am the following morning.  This place was just behind the 'Ligne de Contact'.  The object of this assembly point was that the CO was determined that, if it was humanly possible, we were not going to be bothered by German patrols in our rear when we took over from the Camerons.  He had, therefore, evolved an excellent scheme whereby the Battalion was to beat out the Foret de Bouzenville where it was certain these patrols and snipers lived. The method employed was to be exactly the same as that used at a covert shoot using the 800 odd Jocks of the Battalion as beaters, the CO and Company commanders acting as head keeper and under keepers!  Having fixed this up, Ronnie and I set off for Dampont Farm, the HQ of 4th Camerons.

Here we found Jack Cawdor (CO) and Derek Lang (Adj.) and various other Cameron and Gunner officers, all looking completely exhausted and thankful to see the first of their relief arriving.  We were each given a guide and they led us up about a mile to our Company positions.  On my arrival at the Tiergarten post, I thought it rather odd that there should be a lot of men lying down in the open and none having camouflaged themselves with branches etc;  some were even outside the perimeter wire.  I found Ross had taken over commany of Company from Raymond Burton.  He apparently had come to the same conclusion as I had, and decided that the post was too small to accommodate a whole Company and that, in the event of a raid, if the men were so concentrated, casualties were bound to be high.  His CO had apparently refused to allow him to withdraw any men out of the post and he had therefore thought it safer to have his Company less concentrated.  I suggested that there would be hell to pay if the Bosch started to shell the post with all these men outside with no protection whatsoever. He realised this but said that nothing could be done about it.  As it was his Company who were concerned and he was in charge, I said no more!

I got my party into the trench and let Ross put them where he wanted them.  It must have been a tight fit before we came, but after I and my men were in we were more or less shoulder to shoulder!  There was no possible chance of sleep or rest for anyone as there wasn't even enough room to lie down in the bottom of the trench, so we 'stood to' all night.  It was a dead quiet night without a sound except for the usual discomforting bird noises and an occasional dog barking in the distance.  We passed an uneventful night and, as all seemed quiet, some of us got out of the trench and were smoking a cigarette and thinking about preparing the men's breakfast when suddenly there was the most tremendous explosion practically at our feet.  We made a dive for the trench and got there just as six similar shattering reports went off all round us.  Being my first experience of being under fire, I reckoned it was an enemy mortar that was firing at us, and firing extremely accurately at that, as the stuff was bursting all round the trench. However, it turned out later that I was wrong.  The explosions came thick and fast for about a quarter of an hour, and a lot of bits of metal were flying about all over the place and hitting the trees and branches round us, and a certain amount coming into the trench.  I remember, for some curious reason, my only reaction was surprise when a lump of jagged metal the size of a golf ball buried itself with a "whump" in the side of the trench neatly between me and the man standing six inches away from me!  One of my lance corporals was badly wounded with a hole the size of one's fist in the small of his back.  It all stopped as suddenly as it had started.  By now I was not only worried about the wounded lance corporal, who was losing a lot of blood, but I had somehow to get back to Bn. RV where I had orders to meet the CO.

I got three volunteers and arranged with Ross that he should give us covering fire while we got the wounded NCO out of the trench on to a stretcher.  We managed to get him out alright, but as we set off with the stretcher there was a hail of bullets all round us, apparently from very close range.  We made a bolt for it - or as much as it is possible to bolt carrying a man on a stretcher!  Bullets ripperd all around us, making smacking noises on the trees.  How we weren't hit I don't know.  After we had gone 30 or 40 yards the trees offered us a certain amount of cover.  When we were hidden by trees, the Bosch lobbed over mortar shells and followed us with these bursting about 30 yards behind us for 400 or 500 yards and then stopped.  On thinking over it all afterwards, I came to the conclusion that we had been had for suckers and that what had happened was this.  Two or three Germans must have crawled up the bank in dead ground to within 15 or 20 yards of the trench and, still under cover from fire and view, had lobbed hand grenades at the trench as, unlike mortar shells, they gave no warming of their arrival.  Then, when the stretcher party got out of the trench, all they had to do was to put their heads just above the bank and spray us with impunity as we went, realising that the men in the trench couldn't see them!  Quite cunning - but I found it as my baptism of fire most alarming!  We had to carry the stretcher two miles to Bn. HQ which, with a heavy Jock on it, I found most exhausting.  I found Duncan Macrae (our MO) there on arrival and handed the wounded man over to him.  He had a look at him before I left and said that, although he was pretty bad, he thought he would recover.  I have since heard that he was home and had completely recovered and had been to Ardullie!  (Captain Munro's home)

From Dampont Farm I went straight down to the Bn. RV and found them all having breakfast.  While I had some breakfast the CO explained the manoeuvre for driving the wood.  It was a heavenly morning and by this time the sun was pretty warm and it was plainly going to be a scorching day.  Eventually the Bn. set off.  Getting the whole Battalion spread out into a long line in thick wood and undergrowth was a very difficult operation and took some time to complete.  However, this done, word came to move forward and the whole line got on the move.  All went well for a bit but the line began to get ragged as different parts of it came to thick or thin parts of the wood.  Some parts would have been impenetrable for a keeper, and were almost impossible for a Jock in full marching order with a pack and carrying a rifle or Bren.  After we had done half the wood, the line was beginning to get too much out of control, so it was decided to call it off.  I think it certainly did some good, if only to scare any Bosch who might have been in the wood.  We found one or two hides which they had built, but no signs of the occupants. The Battalion reformed and the Companies marched off to their respective posts.

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