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Major Leslie Petch - War letters and war diary from Dunkirk - 5 of 6

Background to BEF

This information comes from the BBC website and gives details of the strength British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) as compared to the German Army.

 

‘Before reviewing what happened next in this story it is worth examining just what these forces amounted to. The whole BEF amounted now to ten Divisions, comprising four Brigades of three Battalions each, a Battalion being about 800-1000 men. Together with the French 1st Army this amounted to around 400,000 men, which may seem a lot. However at the somewhat more local level the picture wasn't so bright. An infantry company comprised about a hundred or so officers and men under a company commander who was normally a Captain or Major. The company was organised into three platoons of thirty each plus company HQ staff, each platoon having an officer, usually a Lieutenant, and a Platoon Sergeant. The platoon was organised into four sections of six men each led by a corporal or lance corporal.

 

For the majority, their only weapons were a Lee Enfield 303 rifle and ammunition, a bayonet and a few hand grenades. This was little different from the First World War. Within a section there would be a Bren gun (a heavy machine gun) within a company, there might be a Sten gun with carrier (a heavier weapon). There were a few anti-tank guns, but these were no match for Panzer armour. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were few and far between with just a few armoured cars in the Divisional cavalry and a light armoured unit of the French 1st Army.  They were hardly a fast moving outfit and they were able to get from place to place on foot almost as quickly as the motorised units. With these meagre weapons they were expected to hold their ground against a numerically superior force. The German army was equipped with more, much faster armoured vehicles (including the Panzer divisions). Also, there were two German Army groups totalling more than twice the number of troops, with many individual soldiers having sub-machine guns. The contrast in fire-power was stark.’

 

 

 

The Diary

 

[Diary written up on return to England following Dunkirk evacuation]

 

June 3 1940, Hereford 

 

Here is a resume of my movements since leaving Stockton the 24th April. It certainly has been an experience and undoubtedly the hardest time of my life ...

 

 

[Early April]

 

We had quite an uneventful crossing from Southampton to Le Havre, where we moved out some twenty-five miles to a rest camp at Villequerville on the Havre – Rouen road. The men were billeted in barns from April 26th – 30th and it was here we saw the best of the visit to France. The Battalion Orderly Room was in a Chateau – well kept and occupied by the Mayor of Yvetot. We entertained the Mayor to dinner together with his wife who wore brilliant diamonds. They in return reciprocated and a nine-course meal with a wine dinner in their Chateau.

 

The brightest part of Yvetot was nevertheless the ‘Au point-du-Jour’ a homely wayside hotel with a vivacious and pretty French girl called Lu-Lu who kept all the Officers of A and B Companies alive and did  a good deal of cooking for us. I am afraid there were several tears shed by the junior officers when we left there.

 

It was 8.30 p.m. on the 30th when we marched off to the station and as the proverbial French rail system lived up to its name, the train arrived into the station at 2 a.m. We travelled through Amiens on to Albert and then on to Miramount station. We disembarked and marched 2 miles to a poplar wood where we pitched our tents. It was on the site of the old battlefield of the Somme – many shells and various relics of the last war remained. Rex knew this area quite well having fought on the same ground some 24 years previously.

 

May 1 ....

 

We started out to build our aerodrome at Gravelliers some 2 miles away. Gravelliers wood was very famous in the last war – it was taken and lost 8 times by the French.  All the local inhabitants avoid the wood as they say there are 20,000 ghosts there – the number of Frenchmen who lost their lives in it. The shell craters and the tree stumps with shells embedded still remain. The young trees are grown up but none are more than 20 years old.

 

The aerodrome was a grand place and we all worked hard to get it completed. The 5th East Yorks and us worked in shifts from 7.30 a.m – 7.30 p.m. The great long concrete runways were nearing completion by May 10th. The Major in charge of the engineers was a Major Nuttall – the great contractors and he brought nearly all his workmen to build this aerodrome. His wife, Lady Nuttall, has racehorses with Cotterill.

 

We had 4 or 5 air raid warnings on the night of May 9-10 and at 5 a.m. the first air raid took place. 10 engineers were killed and 40 wounded. We carried on with all speed and hoped to finish the aerodrome in a week or so. That evening 9 Hurricane fighters landed on the aerodrome from Nottingham. They had tried to reach Lille but owing to fading light landed with us. I took one officer into my tent and shared blankets etc.  however at 1.30 a.m. I was ordered to collect the whole of my Company and rush off in cars with no lights to Albert to defend the Air Factory against the sabotage of a body of parachutists who had just landed nearby.  

 

At 3 a.m. I arrived at Albert, which was about 10 miles from the camp and studied the maps and private defences of the French Officers – they spoke no English and appointed me to be responsible for the defence of the factory.  After placing my men in position in the few trenches and dug-outs I took a Bren gun and a reconnaissance party out by car to locate these parachutists and after chasing several French workmen in the grey light of dawn returned to the factory. After a couple of hours after dawn the French relieved us and we returned empty-handed back to camp.

 

Another few days of air raids in the district and constantly standing to, led us to our departure from the camp at Arles on May 16th [17th is when my father, Bill Cheall became Major Petch's Batman - Ed]. That day was the last of any letters received from England. They were dated May 10th.

 

We rushed to Marquion on the Cambrai – Arras road and held the Canal du Nord. Thousands of refugees formed a pitiful spectacle as they wearily proceeded in the many kinds of conveyances away from the Hun onslaught. The petrol dump at Douai had been burning for days and the whole scene was one of desolation as we went forward. Having taken up a position on the canal by dusk and guarded the 3 main bridges we stood to all night expecting an attack, which did not take place.

 

The morning of the 17th we were subjected to bombing a few yards to our rear and to our right. The engineers blew up the bridges and we retired at 9 p.m. to Rumaucort. The tanks had scattered. We marched to Brigade H.O. at Dury some two miles further on.  Then at 2 a.m. we arrived at Saudemont and took up an all round defence near the local woods. It was here we helped an English woman and her daughter and sent them on by our transport. They were from Lens – the girl's address was Miss N Caudron c/o Miss Pendry, 15 The Grove, Palmers Green, London N13. At 9.30 p.m. of the 20th May we marched some 10 miles with instructions to pick up transport to take us to Thelus.

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