101 Company’s Battle (France 1940)
from Low & Everett’s history of the Regiment

When the fighting began on 10th May, 1940 in the absence of the O.C. Major H. M. Everett who was on leave in the United Kingdom the main body of 101St Coy. was ordered to remain at Beaumetz-les-Loges but to send Lt. Jobson with his Section forward to G.H.Q. at Renaix with 100th Coy. who in consequence took over the G.H.Q. commitment of 101st Coy., and the main body proceeded to Renaix on 17th May when orders were received to prepare for blowing all 15 - 20 bridges and crossings on a section of the Canal du Nord and the River Trotille behind it. The Company moved under command of the 2 I/C Capt. J. H. Vaughan and arrived at Moislains where Coy. H.Q. was set up.

Preparation of the bridges began at once with the explosive which they carried, but this was insufficient for so many bridges and a lorry which was sent for more returned some hours later with six cases of ammonal because there was no guncotten in the dump. During the morning of 18th May work was interrupted by some aerial bombardment and the incursion of two enemy A.F.V’s which had crossed an unprepared bridge in a small lane. The 2 I/C and Lt. H. A. P. Clay who were visiting the bridge skilfully avoided them by taking cover behind a garden wall.

They were ordered to blow all bridges as soon as possible and withdraw to a rendezvous about 10 miles to the rear. Number 1 Section had no time to prepare one steel girder bridge and so they put the contents of two cases (50 lbs.) of ammonal on the deck of this bridge, tamped it well with chalk from a nearby quarry and fired it. The result was excellent for it badly buckled the bridge which rolled nicely off its abutments. Although not an accepted method of demolition at the time this was later developed and known as an ‘overload charge.’ The casualties to date were five wounded and two men missing.

By the evening of that day all the bridges were successfully blown and the Company withdrew to Bucquoy and prepared to defend themselves against the enemy armoured division which they thought would be following up after the A.F.V’s. Having obtained some guncotten slabs from a neighbouring unit they made up small charges with primers and safety fuse to throw out of the windows at the enemy tanks as they passed. It was found out afterwards that the A.F.V’s had returned over the river so that all the preparations were fortunately in vain.

On 19th May No. 3 Section, less 22 men left at G.H.Q., rejoined the main body from Renaix.

That morning C.E. 2nd Army brought in the news that the enemy had taken Peronne and Albert and were advancing on Arras and would probably have a flanking party through Bucquoy. Our C.R.E. then received orders to hold Bucquoy as long as possible, but in no event to be surrounded. During the course of the afternoon a large Ordnance depot was discovered full of guns, limbers, bren carriers, light tanks etc. It was decided to try to salvage these and M. Salvaton the French interpreter to the C.R.E. led a party of 10 tanks and carriers to Abbeville. Each Field Company took three anti-tank guns in tow and the remainder were blown up. A large petrol dump nearby was also set on fire. Lt. Fyson Adjt. to a C.R.E. in 1st Army was sent out on a motor cycle to try to locate the enemy. He returned later having visited Albert and Peronne and found both towns completely empty and no sign of the enemy. In the meantime C.Q.M.S. Croome and Driver Monington went to Aubigny for explosive and did not return and Lt. Jobson and a party of six men were sent to Achiet to do as much damage to the railway there as they could. In the evening the C.R.E. and all under his command left Bucquoy for Haverskerque.

Soon after arrival on 20th May the Coy. was ordered to move in to the nearby Foret de Nieppe and rest. Movement was difficult owing to great aerial activity and the roads being completely cluttered with refugees.

On 21st May the Coy. received orders to prepare to blow all bridges on the Canal de Ia Bassee between a road bridge on the Lenscarvin road and Bethune. Reconnaissance revealed that all these bridges were already prepared and that most of them were to be blown by other R.E. units or the French. It was finally discovered that there were two footbridges which nobody was attending to and that there was a congestion of barges by the main bridge at La Bassee. The footbridges were prepared and the barges were separated and towed to the north bank. One ton of guncotten and one ton of ammonal was drawn from a dump at Bailleul, but few primers and no electric detonators were obtainable. The Company went into billets in Lorgies leaving demolition parties at each footbridge.

In the morning of 22nd May the C.R.E. arrived with information that the Coy. was now a member of “Polforce,” and that he was Assistant C.R.E. to Lt.-Col. Maclaren. He and the 2 I/C, still acting as O.C., then visited Division and Brigade H.Q. to get some clear orders. They failed to do so but were told that the battle was going well and the enemy was held at Vimy. Orders were received from the C.R.E. to take over all bridges between Bethune and the Lenscarvin Road bridge and also orders from C.R.E. “Polforce” to prepare all these bridges and then make a second line of defence of the bridges between Armentieres and Deulemont.

In the early hours of 23rd May a verbal message was received from the C.R.E. that the enemy had crossed the canal between Lillers and St. Venant, that he was retreating and that the Company was to blow up all bridges on its sector and then retreat. The message did not state where the C.R.E. had retreated to or where the Company was to go.

Orders were given for the two footbridges to be blown and the acting O.C. went to Divisional H.Q. to try to get clearer orders. They said that they knew nothing about the enemy crossing and that the Company was not to interfere with the bridges.

H.Q. “Polforce” were asked for orders but they knew nothing about the break through and suggested asking C.R.E. “Polforce” at Merville thereby completing the circle.

This place had been heavily bombed and was totally deserted. The Company then went back to Lorgies in case it was wanted on the La Bassee Canal and reported to H.Q. 25 Brigade and was informed that all but four of the bridges had been blown and that these four had demolition parties.

The Company, then still searching for orders, moved back towards Armentieres again and sent reconnaissance parties to the bridges between Armentieres and Deulemont. H.Q. “Polforce” was found and nobody there knew where either C.R.E. was or could give any help. Lts. Clay and Jobson returned to report that all bridges between Armentieres and Deulemont had been prepared by the French 3me. Genie, who were standing by to blow them.

In desperation the Company moved to a farmhouse near Neuve Eglise and sent a message to H.Q. “Polforce” stating location, reporting that the French had charge of the bridges and asking for orders. These orders were to proceed to Merris and take up a position in reserve there to support other Field Companies who were holding a line around La Motte. On arrival at Merris all transport, drivers and cooks were left there and the remainder took up positions in defence some two miles away, but the night passed without incident.

On 25th May, orders were received to take over the bridge at La Motte from 58 C.W. Company whose O.C. refused to leave his electric cable and exploder so that 101st Coy. had to prepare the bridge for demolition by safety fuse until its own electric equipment arrived. Just after the take-over there was a most determined bombing and machine gun attack, but despite its intensity the only damage was to Sgt. Cottrell whose right thumb was shot off. When this was over Lt. Clay completed the circuit with safety fuse and he had no sooner done so when a D.R. came rushing along saying there were two German tanks behind him. Having no electrical equipment there was no time to wait so the bridge was blown and when the debris cleared it transpired that the tanks were French. Had 58 C.W. Company left its electrical equipment this would not have happened. Later in the afternoon orders were given to guard the railway bridge and two footbridges in La Motte until the next morning.

About midnight the enemy began to shell the wood and kept up an intermittent bombardment for about 2~ hours but there were no casualties. The chief trouble that night was drastic and persistent attacks by mosquitoes.

The next morning (26th May) the Company was relieved and retired to rest at Merris.

Just after mid-day on 27th May, heavy firing broke out in the distance. Road blocks were set up at the entrances to the village and in front of them were laid out slabs of gun cotten with primers and detonators as experimental anti-tank mines. It transpired that there was a German tank attack at Strazeele. Later the Company received orders to take up defensive positions on the railway just south of Outtersteene.

In the very early hours of 28th May orders were received to report to C.R.E. 44 Div. Lt.-Col. Godfrey-Faussett, who ordered the Company to move on foot to the Mont des Boescheps a distance of seven miles leaving everything behind and not to try to burn or destroy anything. One 30 cwt lorry with food, one with spare ammunition and explosives and the water-cart were to be taken and the men were to carry packs only and, in addition to a rifle, either a bren gun, anti-tank rifle, ammunition for these or a pick or a shovel.

The road was crowded with other troops on foot including French soldiers and French horse-drawn military traffic. Confusion increased and it was not for some hours that the Coy. was eventually assembled on the summit of the Mont des Cats near Berthen with orders to defend their position until the end. There had been very drastic bombing and aerial machine-gunning which tested the morale of some of the men and at this stage the C.S.M. and some 40 men disappeared with the food lorry. However, food was scrounged and the Company spent the day uneventfully in a shallow trench on the summit of the Mont des Cats. At 2200 hours permission was given to withdraw into a nearby estaminet until dawn and rest.

Just before dawn on 29th May, the Company returned to the trench. There was intermittent machine gun fire and the enemy could be seen about two miles away on the north-west side of the hill and gradually encircling it. A few hours later there was a very heavy air attack and this was followed by a tremendous artillery barrage. However the only casualty was Cpl. Dudley who was then taken to the R.A.P. in the nearby monastery. In the meantime orders were received to withdraw and retire across country following a stream to Poperinghe and thence to Dunkirk. On the outskirts of Popperinghe there was a jumbled tangle of British and French troops and some 30 of the Company became detached. The remainder proceeded sometimes by road, sometimes cross-country to Oost Cappel where there was one hour’s halt. Thence to Hondschoote, where they were informed that Dunkirk was blown to pieces and that the best place to aim for was Bray Dunes. Amid ever increasing confusion and disorder most of what was now left of the Coy. arrived at Bray Dunes at 1930 hours, not together any more, but all in safety, and they began to get away by sea at 0400 hours on 30th May. It was a piecemeal embarkation and the last batch left at 1900 hours.

Lt. Clay and some of his men suffered no more than a ducking when the folding boat in which they were being ferried capsized.

The O.C. Major Everett having been sent a very long and slow way round on his way back from leave arrived at Beaumetz-les-Loges just after the Company had moved and was unable to obtain any information as to where they had gone. Having no form of transport he conducted a large leave party, in the same difficulty, towards the coast by train and on foot and when near Dunkirk was informed that the Company was South of Calais. He went to look for them and was surrounded in Calais where he joined the staff of Col. Holland, who was the Garrison Commander, until he was relieved by the Brigade commanded by Brigadier Nicholson. Major Everett came out on the last boat to leave Calais.