On 2nd October 1939 2nd Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment landed in France with the British Expeditionary Force, as part of 3rd Infantry (Iron) Division commanded by Major-General Bernard Law Montgomery. 5th Battalion arrived in France on 15th January 1940 with 144th Brigade, 48th (South Midland) Division. 48th Division was a familiar name from the Great War. In February the Territorial divisions were beefed up with regular troops, and thus in February 2nd Battalion was transferred to 145th Brigade, 48th Division.
The “Phoney War” or “Sitzkrieg” of late 1939 and early 1940 on the Western Front involved occasional actions in which the enemy were engaged in the form of patrols, raids and counter-raids. The second Military Cross awarded during the war went to Lieutenant J.A. Mackenzie for his “skill, judgement and leadership” when his three-man patrol clashed with and drove back a larger German force on 13th/14th January. The first Military Medal of the war to be awarded to a Territorial soldier went to Sergeant G.H. Adlam of 5th Battalion for his gallantry while repelling a German raid on his post on 4th April.
On 10th May 1940 the Germans invaded the Low Countries and both battalions moved forward into Belgium, the lead elements of 48th Division setting off in the afternoon of the 10th. At first all seemed to be going well. Captain H.J. Lovett of “D” Company, 2nd Battalion recalled:-
“We left LANDAS at 1300 hrs and crossed the frontier in our 15cwt [truck] at 1330 hrs. We were among the first flight to cross into Belgium as there was only one staff car in front of us on our route. Our destination was LESSINES and our route took us through TOURNAI and FRASNES. I cannot look back on that drive without being amused — driving as fast as the bad cobbled roads would allow as if the whole issue of the war depended on us, with the local inhabitants waving encouragement and throwing flowers and kisses at us as we passed.”
By 16th May the two Gloucester battalions were in positions near the Waterloo battlefield of 1815, but the French army had already been fatally broken, and 2nd and 5th Battalions received the order to retreat. The retreat was in some danger of turning into a rout. Captain Lovett wrote of 18th May:-
“. . . we proceeded by Motor coaches – our destination was Bruyelle. Some coaches went via TOURNAI where the Bn. sustained about 90 casualties from bombing . . . I received a rude awakening when I was having a doze on the journey. I was hauled out of the coach and thrown into a ditch by my Coy. Commander — we were being dive bombed but nothing came anywhere near us, the attack being on the column about 100 yds behind us. The M/T discipline was extremely bad during this journey as there was a lot of unnecessary passing and racing between coaches of other units.”
Captain L.C. Hauting of 5th Battalion recalled of the same day:-
” . . . This withdrawal was difficult owing to the close proximity of enemy advance armoured units; several groups of stragglers became detached from Coys, and one or two coys were forced to cross the canal North of Lessines. Some transport ran short of petrol and vehicles had to be abandoned.”
During this period 5th Battalion had marched 95 miles in 83 hours to Tournai before being picked up in a variety of commandeered transport and brought back to the Escaut canal where the British Expeditionary Force were to make their first stand against the Germans. 2nd Battalion had suffered heavy losses from enemy aircraft, 194 members of the battalion being either killed or wounded in one raid on 19th May.
A week later, 2nd and 5th Battalions helped to form the defensive screen around Dunkirk at Cassel and Ledringhem where they held out for 4 days against continual infantry, armoured and air attack. 2nd Battalion arrived in position at Cassel on 25th May and 5th Battalion around Arneke, Wormhoudt and Ledringhem on 26th May. Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk, began on the 26th as the first German patrols began to probe the Cassel defences. The following day, the German attack began in earnest. 2nd Battalion’s “D” Company was almost overrun in the grounds of the Chateau and were having great difficulty in dealing with an enemy tank which had penetrated their position. The anti-tank rifles were proving ineffective, and the exact whereabouts of the tank was unknown. Captain H.C. Wilson tried again:-
“. . . Went back to my HQ and got Pte. Palmer with one of our anti-tank rifles, Fane, who knew where the tank was, and CSM Robinson (who asked to be allowed to come with me), and the four of us returned to D Coy area to attempt an attack on the tank. We had just reached a point where the tank could be fired on and got the rifle into position when two mortar bombs fell right among us. They were followed by four others in rapid succession. Pte Palmer was severely wounded in the back and the anti-tank rifle was blown goodness knows where.
“We returned and on the way back I found the mortar crew still in the lane, their mortar abandoned. Getting them into position again I returned to my HQ and then back again to see what could be done about the tank. Climbing to an OP in D Coy HQ building, I saw the tank at the end of the grounds, conning tower open and smoke pouring out of it. Apparently in the meantime one of our anti-tank guns had been moved up into position and dealt with it.”
5th Battalion were being attacked in their positions at the same time, and at Ledringhem on 27th May one of their two-pounder anti-tank guns accounted for five enemy tanks and four armoured cars. However, their position was in danger of being overrun, and the battalion was ordered back to defend the perimeter of the village and hang on for another twenty-four hours. Two runners arrived from Brigade H.Q. on the evening of the 28th with orders to commence the withdrawal, but the fighting was so intense that any kind of orderly withdrawal would have been impossible. The decision was made to wait for a more opportune moment.
2nd Battalion did not receive the order to withdraw until the afternoon of the 29th May by which time Cassel was under very heavy attack and the Gloucesters in imminent danger of being surrounded. For both battalions, the fighting withdrawal to Dunkirk was to be fraught with danger, and to end rather differently for each one. 5th Battalion’s War Diary records the night withdrawal made in the early hours of the 29th, through the burnt out remains of their transport:-
“. . . The Battalion crawled out of the village in fairly good order, but as the carrier field (through which the start was made) was fully illuminated by a burning windmill in one corner it was difficult to understand how the Battalion were not seen escaping. A number of men took the wrong turn. . . . By now much of the rest of the village was also lit up by fires as incendiary bullets had been fired. Progress was slow. It was dark and difficult to decide the way and pick up the stragglers. . . .”
By the time 5th Battalion reached the beaches of Dunkirk on 30th May, they had lost from a third to half their strength, the survivors being shipped back to England.
On 31st May Captain Wilson was leading a party of fifteen men, armed with only five rifles and a revolver between them and cut off from any support, and trying to reach Dunkirk. He was to meet the fate of so many of 2nd Battalion, and described his moment of capture:-
“. . . A tank on the road now also opened fire on us. By rolling and crawling to our right we reached a dip by a fence. Pushing through the fence we found ourselves fired on by rifles from our right and right front.
“A moment later a lorry drew up in a farm lane just behind us. Troops descended from it. Completely surrounded, with our lack of weapons there was only one thing to do. The men were utterly exhausted from fatigue, lack of sleep and food and seventeen days of continuous fighting or marching. We were prisoners.”
Both battalions had fought hard to delay the German onslaught on Dunkirk, and the spirited if ultimately hopeless defence put up by the rearguard troops did buy some precious time for the evacuation. 2nd Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment received the order to retreat rather later than the 5th had done, and Cassel was further from the coast than Ledringhem. Consequently, the toll in prisoners-of war suffered by 2nd Battalion was far heavier than that suffered by 5th Battalion. 485 officers and men of 2nd Battalion and 147 of 5th Battalion went into German captivity.