War Diary

War Diary of Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis

Page 9

Behind the Maginot Line again

The column passed through Chennery and, after taking a very indirect route, eventually passed through the Maginot Line about seven miles further on.  This was about 6 am. Although the column must now have been well over a thousand strong, the few Frenchmen who were lolling about or making their breakfast outside their posts in the Maginot seemed to take singularly little interest in us, or indeed what was happening in front of them!  Finally, after another three hours' marching we arrived, completely exhausted, at the Brigade RV in Le Foret de Conte Huulostein.

Fortunately there was a meal waiting for the men and, when they had fed, I got them sorted out and they made bivouacs and shelters for themselves out of branches.  There was still no sign of Smith and his platoon and I was extremely worried about his non-appearance. The CO was equally worried and very annoyed with me for not having confirmed Smith's original orders personally, and I kicked myself for having been such a fool.  I was too exhausted to eat and Simon and I managed to find a bell tent full of stores in which we flung ourselves down, exhausted.  Even in this state we found it extremely difficult to sleep as there was a gunner battery of what sounded like very large calibre guns about a hundred yards away from us which was firing continually, almost without pause.  Eventually we were wakened by R A A S Macrae (the Adjutant) about an hour later, who told us there was a CO's conference in 10 minutes time and that my Company was being sent out immediately to occupy another position.  Soon after this, to my intense relief, Smith and his platoon turned up safe and sound.  He said he had no difficulty in getting out of his post and had understood his orders and seemed rather surprised at all the flap that had been going on about him.  After a hurried lunch, in the middle of which General Fortune and his ADC, David Lumsden, turned up and presented the CO with a long-promised case of champagne, I set off to reconnoitre my new positions.

My new position was in another wood and had previously been occupied by the French and, as usual, was almost entirely 'projet' and completely undug.  It was at present occupied by a Company of 1st Black Watch commanded by Geoff Milne.  He gave me a rough idea of the situation and then Smith arrived, having had a rest, bringing the Company with him.  The Jocks were in no fit state to work and, as there was no likelihood of immediate attack (we now being behind the Maginot), I only put them on short working shifts and made the remainder rest.

The next day orders came saying that we were to be relieved by a Company of 4th Gordons and that we would return to Bn. HQ.  Harry Usher turned up and said that his Company were relieving us, so having taken him round the positions, I marched the Company back to the Foret de Conte Huulostein and rejoined the remainder of the Battalion.

It was still the most glorious weather.  In this we were lucky as there were only a few tents of any kind in the forest and most of the men slept out in the open.  It was another of the enormous forests of beech which were so common in this part of France.  By now they were in full leaf and the ground below was a carpet of wild flowers.  Nothing could have been more pleasant sitting out having our meals under these huge trees.  But things were rather spoilt by guns firing off all round us, both far and near, and the occasional German aeroplane coming over.

As far as I can remember, we were in this place about three days awaiting orders to move.  Besides being a welcome rest for the men, it gave us an opportunity to sort out stores and check up on deficiencies which were pretty big after the sudden night withdrawal from the Ligne de Contact.  Our transport "hide" was in another part of the forest and the 2nd Seaforths' transport was there too.  I went over one morning and had a drink with Billy Fox, their MTO, who seemed in great form.  The inhabitants of the surrounding villages now began to panic and started evacuating their homes.  John Anderson came in one morning and said that he had seen our friends Marie Louise and her Ma and they had sent a personal request to me, asking if I would go and help them move and give them some transport.  However, this was impossible as I was far too busy with my own job.  I sent a message back to this effect and told them that any transport we had available was being sent up to help them.  This was actually done by the Brigade who collected every vehicle they could and started a sort of ferry service between these villages and Metz, the French authoritiesm apparently having made no arrangements of their own!

General Fortune came to lunch with us one day and gave us what news he could of the situation, but it was very scanty and he said he knew little more than us and that the whole situation was very 'obscure'.  The evening before we left, the CO took Simon Fraser and I into Metz in his car for a (by now!) much needed bath and dinner.  The place hadn't changed much but was quieter.  On passing through the main square we saw two or three shell craters made by German long-range guns, but damage appeared to be negligible.  We went straight to our old haunt, L'Hotel Royale, where we had our last bath and dinner in peace.  We listened to the news over the radio in the manager's office, I remember, before we left, then motored back with no lights on a clear, moonlit night.  The next day being Sunday, Cecil Lake (our padre) arranged for an outdoor service.  It was a voluntary parade but practically all the Jocks turned up.  Standing in a clearing of the wood with a background of green trees and a cloudless blue sky above, a gentle warm breeze blowing just enough to stir the leaves of the trees, it was one of the most impressive services I have ever attended and I shall remember it always.

Next morning, orders came for the Battalion to move and we marched some 15 kilometres south-west to a place called Bois du Rurange.  Here again we were in the open and the Battalion bivouaced.  The inhabitants of a nearby farm told us that the French police had caught three spies near here recently and that all three had been shot.  Whether this was true or not I never discovered.  It was another grilling hot day. We spent an uneventful twelve hours at this place.  Andre Jourde amused himself by taking photographs of some of us, and I later managed to get mine home.  Late in the afternoon Ian Shaw Mackenzie (our 2nd I/C) and Mackintosh (QM) arrived back from leave.  They had had a lively time getting to us and had been bombed at various places on the way.

We moved again by night through Ay and Meziers to yet another wood called Silvange Mirange.  There were a lot of refugees living in kind of hutments in the wood and we had to keep a pretty strict eye on our belongings while they were about.  All this time there were German planes circling overhead most of the day.  Many of them must have seen us but made no attempt to bomb or machine gun us.  Simon and I went into Metz to collect some of the Battalion laundry that had been left there and to arrange for some surplus kit that had been dumped to be sent home.  I expect it is still sitting there, as probably are our drums which were left in store at Quatier Les Valliers.

After 48 hours we moved again, still going south-west some twenty miles to the village of Boncourt.  Shaw and the Company Commanders went on ahead in their trucks to arrange billeting.  In one village where we stopped on our way, women rushed out into the road and presented us each with a bunch of peonies and tied a bunch on the radiator of each truck, much to our amazement!  Boncourt was a small, attractive village with a large, derelict chateau standing in its own grounds in the middle of it.  The chateau had been uninhabited since 1915, they told us, and it certainly looked it.  There was a French AA battery in the village who had apparently been more or less a permanent fixture since the start.  Their CO, a Major, was quite helpful in arranging billets for us.  He had a successful battle with the local schoolmaster whose school we wanted for one Company and who was very averse to giving it!  The screamed at each other for about ten minutes, surrounded by dozens of kids who were all delighted at the prospect of not having to go to school the following day!  Eventually, having arranged everything to our satisfaction, we were invited to go and have a bottle of wine in the Frenchmen's Mess.  They had done themselves pretty well and had an extremely comfortable house and were well dug in.  They proudly showed us pieces of German plane they had shot down outside the village the day before.  Having once more helped to cement the 'entente' we all moved off to the one and only cafe in the village.

This cafe was run by a nice, good-natured, old woman who produced an enormous meal for seven of us and gave us the keys of her cellar and told us to choose what we wanted!  Andre Jourde, who was with us, went into her kitched and assisted her in the making of some mammoth omelettes, which went down very nicely.  Before it got dark I scoured the village and managed to buy a bottle of beer and slab of chocolate for each man in my Company.  It was going to be a wet night and they would have a long and tiring march, and beer and chocolate would keep them quiet while their meal was being cooked.  Then we all dossed down on benches in the cafe and got what sleep we could till the Battalion arrived, in pouring rain, at 3 am.  I got my Company into a large barn full of straw, with two lofts in it.  They got a meal and settled down for the night.  I eventually got back to my own billet in a cottage on the outskirts of the village just as it was beginning to get light.  My batman, John Barkley, woke me next morning at 8 am.  It was a wonderful morning with a clear, blue sky and I looked out of a very funny little bedroom window on to the cottage garden and orchard filled with cherry trees in blossom.

The following day was uneventful except that our kit from Metz arrived - at last - all except the Battalion drums.  Most of the day was spent in sorting it all out.  All the officers fed in a central Mess in the village cafe.  We had no idea how long we were likely to stay here, but Brigade had said at least a day or two.  The whole situation was still pretty obscure and vague and even the wireless didn't tell us much.  We didn't know where our next destination was going to be, but we had heard that the Germans had broken through at Sedan and we thought it more than likely we would be sent there.  After supper on our second evening at Boncourt, George Baird, who had recently been on leave, produced a trout rod and he and I walked down to a small river just outside the village and fished for a couple of hours till dark.  It was a lovely, still evening - I think 28th May - and it was hard to believe there was a war on and that the BEF were in the opening stages of their evacuation from Dunkirk while we fished away peacefully.  We were of course at this time quite ignorant of the world-shattering events going on in Belgium and the coast of France.  We caught nothing but spent a delightful two hours and returned to billets comfortably tired.  It turned out to be a memorable night, being the last night I slept in a civilized bed between sheets.  Nearly four years later I am still a prisoner of war and sleep in a double decker wooden bunk!

The next day started off quietly enough. General Fortune visited us and told the CO we should not have to move for twenty-four hours but gave no indication as to our next destination.  All went peacefully until about 3 pm, when Victor Campbell (Brigade Major) suddenly arrived in a car, flat out, and pulled up in a cloud of dust outside the Mess.  He said that two Companies were to leave immediately and entrain at a station nine miles away in half an hour!  This was clearly impossible.  However, 'C' and 'D' Companies (Ronnie Pelham-Burns' and mine) were ordered to leave immediately.  Everything was one mad rush from then onwards.  Again it was a grilling afternoon.  I had just enough time to get the men a cup of tea before we left, and we started off at about 140 to the minute on a forced march against time.  On the way, we passed the 2nd Seaforths who were halted by the side of the road.  I don't think they knew their destination either, but all seemed to think they were going to stop the gap at Sedan and were in great form.  I just caught a glimpse of Phip, Colin Mackenzie and John de Pree, but I saw many old friends amongst the other ranks, some - I suppose recruits - I even recognised from my early days of soldiering at Dover in the early 1930s with the 1st Battalion.  We had one maddening wait, I remember, at a level crossing while a train ambled very slowly along. As we passed a long, French, mechanised column, some Messerschmitts flew over, pretty high up.  The Frogs all light-heartedly yelled out, "Attention! Monsieur Schmitt!" and dived into the nearest ditch, while we had to continue marching giving furtive upwards glances and hoping for the best that the pilots hadn't seen us - they apparently hadn't this time!  Soon we saw the station and the 4th Camerons with pipers playing approaching it from another direction.  On arriving at the station - I forget its name - we found a train waiting for us, two Companies of 4th Seaforths and the whole Battalion of 4th Camerons.

The Battalion moves to the Rouen area

I shan't forget that railway journey for a very long time.  It was about the craziest - or appeared to be at the time - I've ever been on!  Jack Cawdor (CO of 4th Camerons) was the senior officer on the train but had had no orders as to where we were going;  in fact he didn't even know whether we were going north, south, east or west.  The engine driver on being questioned was equally ignorant on this subject and merely shrugged his shoulders and said that he had been told that he would get directions at each station we stopped.

The men were in cattle trucks and the officers packed like sardines in second-class carriages.  The train had evidently had a bad time somewhere as it was riddled from end to end with machine gun bullet holes, some of which had been rather half-heartedly patched up.  As we had no idea where we were going, we fully expected to be visited by Bosch planes.  Our only defence was some Brens on AA mountings, perched very precariously on top of the cattle trucks with two Jocks per gun hanging on by their eyebrows!  The train went at walking pace more or less for the first part of the journey.  In the hurry of getting entrained we officers found that our valises - and in fact everything except what we carried on us - had been separated from us and were on a part of the train which we couldn't get at.  Also, in the hurry of leaving Boncourt, we had not been able to make much arrangement about food either for ourselves or the troops.  All we had were a few tins that we had stuffed into our valises at the last minute and which were now separated from us.  The troops had been given a scratch meal at the station before leaving so were more or less OK.  Alan Shearer, who was in my carriage, succenly produced half a dozen tins and a bottle of whisky and saved the situation for that night anyway.  Eventually we settled down and slept fitfully until it became light next morning.  We had stopped at various stations during the night but no one appeared to know much about us or really take very much interest in us or our eventual destination. However, about mid-day on our second day in the train, we stopped at a big station where, surprisingly enough, the French had made arrangements for a meal and had got tanks of hot (if not boiling!) water to make tea and produced quite a good meal for the troops of a mixture of British and French Army rations.

This station, like most of the others we had passed through, was crowded with refugees, all trying to go south away from the Germans.  I spoke to some of them.  I was surprised when one of them, a man of about 45, spoke to me in a broad Irish accent.  He told me that he had married a Belgian during the last war and had stayed out there when the war was over.  He told me he had come from Ghent, on foot, hitch-hiking where he could and in a train wherever he could find one.  He told me he had started with his wife and daughter, aged 12, and that they had been machine gunned by German planes practically the whole way.   His daughter had been killed and his wife wounded;  she was standing beside him with her arm in a sling while I was talking to him.  Poor chap, he was in a terrible state.  After the troops had been fed, as we had half an hour to wait, four of us managed to push and shove our way through the enormous crowds of refugees, out of the station in search of some food.  We found a cafe, which was also full of ravenous refugees, near the station and, having waited in the queue, just before we had to make a bolt for the train we managed to get three loaves, a bottle of champagne and some tins of sardines, which was all they had to offer!

During the course of that afternoon the train, which was a very long one, had to go up some not unduly steep gradients and, in spite of having two engines (of rather ancient pattern), couldn't make it.  So the only thing to do was for everyone to get out and push. This happened several times and after a bit we got the drill taped!  As soon as the train seemed like coming to a standstill and the engines started puffing and snorting, all 1200 men and officers leapt down from the carriages and pushed!  There was also a squad of men by the engine with spades to shovel up gravel and throw it on the rails to give the engine wheels a grip and stop them slipping!  We pushed until she got under way and then leapt back into the carriages.  By the route we were taking, it looked as if we were heading for Paris - actually we skirted the outskirts of Paris - and, after another night and a day in the train, arrived after a 56 hour journey at midnight on 27 May at Rouen.

It was pouring with rain as usual - it always seemed to rain at night and be fine in the daytime during the last few weeks.  We were shunted into a siding and couldn't find a sign of anyone who knew anything about us or where we were supposed to go. However, we de-trained and got the baggage and vehicles out and meanwhile someone did turn up who said he was our guide and was taking us to a tented camp which had originally been an Infantry base depot.  In spite of a hellish two-day journey in the train with very little sleep, the Jocks were in great form.  After a march of five miles or so along an unknown route in pitch dark we eventually arrived at the camp, by which time the officer who was guiding us, thinking, I suppose, he had done his job, had disappeared.  There seemed to be hundreds of tents scattered over a wide area, all except a very few being unoccupied.  Ronnie and I got tired of asking in the occupied ones, the inmates of which were mostly asleep, where we were supposed to go, and receiving a more or less don't-know-and-don't-care answer.  So, after falling over tent pegs, ropes and sleeping bodies, we gave up and just put the men into the nearest tents we could find.  It is amazing, looking back on it, how haphazard all these arrangements - or, rather, complete lack of them - were.  Most of the occupants of this camp who we spoke to, and who presumably had been sitting back taking it easy since the start of the war, were most indignant that we had arrived to disturb their peace.

There was still no sign of the rest of the Battalion who were supposed to be only an hour behind us.  Ronnie and I set off in a truck to try and locate them and so save them all the trouble we had had on arrival.  It still being dark, the place seemed to be a network of roads, most of which ended in an abrupt stop at a large anti-tank obstacle.  Having gone round in innumerable circles and tied ourselves up in knots trying to find a way out of the place, we gave it up and went back to the camp to wait for them.  They turned up at 4 am.  The following day was spent in getting things sorted out and resting the men as much as possible.  In the daylight the camp was seen to cover a vast area and would have housed a Corps at least!  There were several very big NAAFIs which were packing up.  However, I heard much later that in a day or two the panic was so great that the NAAFI staff all bolted, leaving nearly a million pounds' worth of whisky, cigarettes etc for the Bosch when they arrived - and, incidentally, the local Frenchmen!

At midday the CO left by car for a conference at IBD headquarters.  While he was away a staff officer from Northern Area HQ - a new one to us! - arrived with orders that the Battalion was to move that afternoon at 6 pm and that French civilian buses would be provided to transport us to our destination.  This rather smelled as if someone, somewhere was in rather a hurry for us to get somewhere and we drew the obvious conclusions.  This officer could give no information as to where 152 Bde. HQ might be - we had been out of touch with them now for 24 hours - nor did he know anything about our own MT which was coming by road.

The CO came back soon after this chap had left and issued orders for the move that evening.  The Battalion was standing by from 4 pm onwards, fully dressed and ready to walk into the buses on their arrival.  A curious thing happened that afternoon which led to rather an amusing sequence of events.  During the afternoon, some of us, having nothing to do while waiting for the buses, had got hold of an old cricket bat and ball with which we were amusing ourselves.  While doing this, John Anderson suddenly missed a very valuable gold cigarette case which he had been carrying on him.  A search was started and it was eventually found.  He then gave the case to 'Tosh' our QM to look after for him.  Later on, John was badly wounded and got home and 'Tosh' was taken prisoner.  Again, much later, 'Tosh' as a POW managed to be passed for repatriation.  He often said to me how he was looking forward, when and if he ever got home on repatriation party, to being able to hand back John Anderson his cigarette case (which he had probably forgotten all about during the course of three years).  It was quite a feat managing to retain the case at all, as he must have gone through many searches at the hands of the Germans, most of which were very thorough, and if they had found it would most certainly have kept it.  It was ironical that, when eventually he did get home, he found that the position had been reversed and that John Anderson had been taken prisoner himself in Sicily!

By 9 o'clock that night there was still no sign of French buses and no message had come through as to why they hadn't arrived.  They were now three hours overdue and all efforts by DRs sent out to try and locate them had failed.  The CO then went off to Northern Area HQ.  He came back later, saying that all he could find out was that the Battalion, along with the rest of the 51st Division, was being sent up to the Somme.  The buses, they said, might arrive any time.  However, the CO with his unfailing good sense and invariably admirable way of dealing quietly and sensibly with annoying situations, said that the whole Battalion was to stand down and go back to their tents and sleep - if the buses did arrive then they would damn well have to wait until we were ready to get into them!

About 10 pm Smith arrived.  He had been with the road party driving the Bn. MT from the Saar area and had had a very tiring journey driving half way across France.  He said that he had been sent by the Brigade MTO to say that our transport was at Foret d'Eu, which gave us a line on where we were going.  All the officers turned in and had rather an uncomfortable night in a large marquee.  At 6 am the French transport - about 60 civilian buses of various ages - arrived and we got going.


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