Major Leslie Petch - War letters and war diary from Dunkirk - 6 of 6
The German mechanised column had moved quickly from Cambrai to Arras and as much of the Battalion as could be recalled were ordered to take up a position on the Scarpe some 5 miles east of Arras. A great many roads were in chaos and roadblocks were in abundance to stop the German tanks, which were reported on nearly every road. After many detours we found ourselves about 10 miles on the Arras - Cambrai road and I took charge of the column and raced back to Arras, which was subjected to a violent air bombardment. We got past the tank traps and mines, past the burning station in Arras and at dawn emerged on the Lens side of the town only to be machine-gunned by German planes.
Thelus – on the Vimy Ridge (5 miles north of Arras) was our objective and as we arrived there more bombs and machine gun bullets greeted us. It was now 5 a.m. and the message awaiting us, was to take a position on the River Scarpe and hold it for 24 hours. This was about 10 miles away. We rushed there and took up position in the woods. We saw the Germans attacking Arras and after the town fell about 11 a.m. they turned their attention on to us. Being subjected to bombardments and having conferences at midnight and 2.30 a.m. we, with the aid of a Company of 7th Green Howards under Archie Scott, held the line until relieved by the Wiltshires and the 50 Division at 8 a.m. on the 21st May. It was here we suffered our first casualties about 10 wounded chiefly by trench mortars.
Back to Thelus – some 20 miles we marched and arrived about noon and took cover in the woods. All the afternoon we were subjected to some 50 enemy planes bombing and machine-gunning us. At 6 p.m. the Division had little food, so the Brigadier instructed me to get and kill and have ready for the stew pot some 40cwt of beef. As I was driving some cattle into a yard to be slaughtered the Hun planes thought we were good meat and again gave us a warm reception. I dived into a nettle bed and some went up my nose and my face was very red with the rash!
Getting back – there was another flap – a number of enemy tanks were in our rear and we had to move at 9.30 p.m. to Seclin in the Lille area. Our Brigadier disappeared after Thelus! Arriving at Seclin at dawn we had to fortify the position and open cellars up – cave in French. All houses seem to have wine cellars and most have wine in them. Everywhere we went all houses had been evacuated and only the animals remained. Birds in cages, rabbits in boxes, cattle in the farms – and all the cows waiting to be milked. Everyone had just rushed off and scarcely taken a thing. We broke into these places and sustained ourselves with the vintage of the land. (He told us that he taught his men how to milk. They collected eggs and had scrambled eggs, milk and champagne for supper).
It was 9.30 p.m. again on 22nd May just as we hoped for a sleep, the news came through that the Germans were advancing rapidly on Dunkerque and that we were to be rushed to Gravelines some 10 miles west of Dunkerque. Our battalion was the only one to get through.
May 24th. We arrived at Gravelines about 10 a.m. and found some French in position behind the canals which run nearly all round the town. It was in the evening that a sniping commenced but at dawn did the battle really start. A batch of refugees attempted to rush the bridge followed by 3 German tanks. We fired on the tanks and fortunately stopped the rushing of the bridge. It was here that John Hewson firing an anti-tank rifle was hit by a mortar and killed. It was reported he stopped 2 tanks with his rifle. We were shelled intermittently all day but held out until dark when the French relieved us. During the heat of the battle I sent 2 anti-tank rifles to help Bill Richards and Athwaite did good work before being wounded while retiring across a small canal.
What saved the day was the 3 English tanks, which supported us. They came out of the fight with 2 wounded in the cruiser tank, nearly all their 2” ammunition gone and their Vickers machine gun out of action for lack of water and ammunition. The Tank Commander seeing some of the French running said it was impossible to hold out much longer and he was retiring to Dunkerque. After giving him a drink and food, taking his wounded to hospital, and also supplying men for his gun and getting them working did I prevail on him to return and at least give us moral support. After another hour the attacks died down and we were ordered to march to Fort Mardox just outside Dunkerque. 25 Hun planes straffed us as we came out.
Arriving at Fort Mardox we slept for a couple of hours before taking a further defensive position. There were several of the Battalion left at Gravelines. 14 were known to be dead and 30 were and still are missing. At midnight of the 25th May we went to Les Mores and on the 26th May we marched 6 hours from 3 p.m. to do traffic control south of Bergues. After just getting into position and diverting all lorries etc into a large park we received instructions at 9.30 p.m. to march back to Teteghem where we arrived at 3 a.m. The men had had practically no food for 24 hours nor could any be found until 12 noon on May 28 - it was tinned herrings and biscuits – a few men got a drink of milk at the farm house which was being evacuated. At 1.30 p.m. we received an urgent message to march some 15 miles to Haeghe Meulen and protect the flank of the B.E.F retiring on to Bergues. We had been told that we should be evacuated that day from the sands at Dunkerque and it was a great disappointment to the men who were now practically exhausted.
One of my platoons under Claude Hull was lost in the night and reached the sand dunes. Many of the remainder of the Company fell out through exhaustion and only 37 out my original 100 faced the enemy and held their flank. The shelling was much heavier than at any previous position and the main road was littered with casualties of the Lille area and troops rushing to Bergues and then on to Dunkerque. Hull returned but not his men.
After 24 hours we marched to Bray Dunes leaving the position at 9 p.m. and arriving on sands about 3 a.m. on May 30th. It was a long tiring march but everyone was more cheerful. There were thousands of lorries and every kind of transport dumped and all officer’s kit was left behind the canal. Thousands of troops were on the 6 miles of beach between Bray Dunes and Dunkerque and I could have left with the 37 of my Company immediately, but decided to join the rest of the Battalion further on.
Carmichael and a few others went on a raft and reached the boats. Bill Richards and part of C Company also went on small boats to the larger ones. The small boats were abandoned and no one brought them back for further transport of troops. Consequently, for another day we hid in the sand dunes hoping for a raft or boat to appear. (What he told us later was that all the men dug out holes in the sand to hide from the bombing of the German planes. They dug one for him but when he arrived two young frightened solders from another Battalion were hiding in it and he said that they could stay there and he would go over the dune. Sadly a mortar landed in the hole and they were both killed.)
After being appointed Beach Control Officer and seeing there was little chance of getting away from the shore, I took a car to Bray Dunes and found General Herbert. I then motored him 6 miles along a soft sand shore littered with wreckage on to Dunkerque and motored along the Mole to find out that we could embark there in the afternoon. We were spasmodically being shelled and the 7th Battalion lost 10 killed and 100 wounded in embarking.
At any rate it was 5 p.m. on May 31st when the Lady of Mann carried us out to sea with bombs dropping a bit too close. Two planes were shot down and 2 parachutists were floating slowly down to the shore.
The Lady of Mann was the ship that took us across to France and she brought us safely back to Folkestone and then on we came to Hereford.
In a short afterthought to his diary, Major Petch added the following anecdotes:
There was considerable confusion throughout the campaign with the enemy tanks continually getting round to our rear. One night, our transport Sgt. got lost and knocked on the door of a tank to ask the way when a Hun opened the door – our Sgt fled on his bike unharmed.
At Albert one of my L/C told a rough reservist in my Company to go into a dark dugout and see if any Hun was there. The reservist in a polite manner unknown to him before said, ‘After you, Corporal!’
It was surprising, considering some of us only got 1 hour sleep a day for 5 days and probably one meal a day of biscuits and bully beef, that we remained so fit. But at the end of the campaign our feet were very tired and our legs moved slowly. After a few days rest at Hereford however we were all really fit and well again.
The Dunkirk memoirs continued
Dunkirk saw the end of Major Petch's war. Whilst stationed in the south of England after Dunkirk, he one day advised the troops that he would be leaving. He shook my Dad's hand before he left and said:
‘Goodbye, Cheall, and thank you, I will always remember the Company.’
As the Major left his beloved men, B Company also vacated its position on the coast. It had been a pleasant interlude and not a bit boring, as life in the army so often was in the future.
Major Petch's daughter, Jill Garrett, explained:
"My Father was discharged from the Army on medical grounds as his hearing was impaired after the noise of the guns at Dunkirk. This greatly disappointed him. He had been in the 1st World War in the Navy section of what is now the RAF and was then part of the Navy. In fact he is the only person I know who has served in all three Services. "