When war was declared on 3 September 1939 the 1st Coldstream was training at Pirbright, while the 2nd Battalion was at Albuhera Barracks, Aldershot. The 3rd Battalion was in Egypt, serving in the Canal Brigade, and based in Mustapha Barracks, Alexandria.
The outbreak of war was greeted (in 1st and 2nd Coldstream) by some with relief, even celebration; war, long anticipated, was now a reality and provided a degree of certainty. Some felt that it would be like the manoeuvres that the Battalions had done during the summer. A feeling of inevitability prevailed, however, among the many sons of those who had fought the Germans only twenty years before. Orders to mobilize had arrived on 1 September and, within hours, Reservists joined both Battalions.
Mechanization of the Army at home was completed in 1938 and battalions (twenty-three officers and 753 men in four Rifle Companies) had the .303” Bren light machine-gun, ten lightly armoured Bren Carriers, and a 3” Mortar Platoon. Anti-tank defence was provided by the Boys .55” anti-tank rifle, regarded as infamous for its savage kick. Battalions were expected to march (they lacked troop transport) and were equipped only to company level with radio. Tactics were based on the mobile warfare of 1918 with some emphasis on positional defence. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was partly organized for a war of manoeuvre, but it lacked armour and all arms training.
THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE, 1939–40
The 2nd Battalion was in 1st Guards Brigade (with 3rd Grenadiers and 2nd Hampshire Regiment, under Brigadier Merton Beckwith-Smith) in Major General the Hon Harold Alexander’s 1st ‘Strategic Reserve’ Division (I Corps). Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lionel Bootle-Wilbraham, the Battalion moved to Southampton on 19 September and sailed for Cherbourg, continuing by rail (as in 1914) in ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8’ trucks to Sillé-le-Guillaume (near Le Mans) then marching on pavé (cobbles) to Conlie and later Arras.
The 1st Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Cazenove in 7th Guards Brigade (with 1st and 2nd Grenadiers, under Brigadier Sir John Whitaker, a Coldstreamer) was in Major General Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Division (II Corps) and arrived in Cherbourg on 30 September. They followed the same route, arriving near Roubaix on 12 October.
In 1938 plans had been made to deploy the BEF to Northern France which was unprotected by the much-vaunted Maginot Line. A few pillboxes and an incomplete anti-tank ditch existed along the border with neutral Belgium, and so the BEF had to construct a twenty-mile defensive line from Halluin (near Menin) to Maulde, south of Tournai.
The battalions spent the winter of 1939–40 constructing trenches, pillboxes and wire entanglements. The single battledress issued was inadequate for the cold and Guardsmen were mostly quartered in unheated barns. Little training was done in the Regular divisions, except 3rd Division where General Montgomery anticipated that battles would be fought on each river line. Bachy station platform was used for Adjutant’s Drill Parades by 2nd Coldstream, and in December His Majesty the King visited the Battalion on one of the coldest days of the winter. Efforts were made to maintain morale and concerts by George Formby, Gracie Fields and others were popular. Morale was high and the Guardsmen, despite the most arduous conditions, complained little during this ‘Phoney War’.
Lord Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, attended the Paris conference in November at which it was decided that if Belgian neutrality was violated the Allies would move forward sixty miles from the River Escaut to the River Dyle, east of Brussels. This – Plan ‘D’ – would shorten the Allied line, preserve Brussels, deny the Channel ports to Germany and might bring the Belgian Army on to the Allied side. No reconnaissance of Belgium was allowed, however, and the wisdom of moving forward was much debated.
In February 1940 the 2nd Battalion served in the Maginot Line near Lorry-lès-Metz and the companies were, for the first time, in sight of the enemy. Useful battle lessons were learned, particularly about dominating no-man’s-land. Some Guardsmen acquired ‘On ne passe pas’ Maginot badges; after Dunkirk many Coldstreamers felt that, unlike the Maginot defences, no one had passed them!
The German invasion of the Low Countries on 10 May was followed by the advance into Belgium. 1st Coldstream moved to Vilvorde outside Brussels, then to Louvain and Herent, on the Mechelen-Louvain canal, where Coldstreamers first engaged German troops (14 May). An assault crossing in the Battalion area was repulsed next day, but during the action Lord Frederick Cambridge, commanding No 2 Company, was killed. The loss of this popular figure, the first Coldstream officer killed in the campaign, was a shock. The Battalion counter-attacked to the canal, but on 16 May the Germans crossed in the Belgian sector. Worse news followed; German tanks had broken through over the River Meuse eighty miles further south, outflanking the Maginot Line and threatening the BEF’s flank.
The 1st Battalion withdrew that night to the Escaut (temporarily beside the 2nd Battalion) and later into reserve. Refugees hindered movement and everyone witnessed terrible sights where civilians had been dive-bombed. On 22 May the 1st Battalion moved again to Wattrelos, east of Roubaix. The discipline and bearing of the Guardsmen on the march made a strong impression on many observers.
The 2nd Coldstream received news of the attack on 10 May at Pont-à-Marcq, south of Lille. The Battalion marched twenty-one miles to Tournai next day before being lifted to Brussels, but had to march a further twelve miles to Duisburg village, and later Leefdaal, on the Brussels-Louvain road. Similar scenes of refugees choking the roads and rumours of ‘Fifth Columnists’ were encountered. No.3 Company’s cookhouse in Leefdaal was bombed and the CQMS and a cook were killed, the first casualties suffered by the Battalion.
On 15 May, following the German crossing of the Dyle, the Battalion prepared to move amid order and counter-order. That night it withdrew, marching seventeen miles back to Zuun on the Brussels-Charleroi canal; two days later it completed another twenty miles to the Dendre at Ninove. The Commanding Officer commented that the Guardsmen marched well and were cheerful despite little sleep in the past forty-eight hours. The boots stood the test, but many felt that they had ‘slept on the march’. On 19 May 2nd Coldstream had to withdraw in daylight in contact, under shellfire, from its positions forward of the Dendre.
The twenty-seven miles to Pecq on the Escaut were completed mostly on foot, fortunately without air attack, and the Battalion arrived late on 20 May. The Escaut was “as wide as the Basingstoke canal”, but shallow; it gave Lord Gort the chance to deploy the BEF in the defence of a major obstacle, although he had troops committed around Arras, thirty-five miles to the south-west. The BEF defences ran for thirty-two miles with 1st Guards Brigade in the centre.
The Guardsmen were tired – “over everybody there was a heavy air of fatigue and depression” one Company Commander wrote – but two platoons per company immediately began to dig in along an 1800 yard frontage, overlooked by the Mont St Aubert feature, 430 feet high, less than two miles away. No 3 Company guarded the bridge, demolished that night (20/21 May), while No 1 Company was behind the canal bank. During the dark night it was realized that there was a gap between the Coldstream and 3rd Grenadiers on the right, and a limited re-deployment took place. The Royal Artillery shelled movement on the far bank, but before dawn German mortaring started and heavy shellfire later hit both Battalions.
A determined river crossing by 31st Infantry Division against the Coldstream-Grenadier boundary followed. Despite heavy fire, several German companies crossed and advanced towards the Pecq-Tournai road, digging in on rising ground (‘Poplar Ridge’). Attempts by Coldstream Bren carriers to support No 1 Company, forced out of position, were only partially successful, several carriers being lost to assault guns. The attack towards Pecq was halted.
The situation was unclear; communications were difficult. Brigadier Beckwith-Smith, the Brigade Commander, ordered the Commanding Officers to restore the situation as best they could. No 3 Company of the Grenadiers counter-attacked, but, when this faltered, Lance Corporal Harry Nicholls of the Grenadiers (Imperial Forces Heavyweight Boxing Champion) charged the positions on Poplar Ridge firing his Bren, destroying the machine guns and causing numerous casualties, despite several wounds. This superb act of gallantry wrested the initiative from the Germans and Lance Corporal Nicholls was later awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Coldstream re-established their forward positions and by nightfall reported their front clear of enemy. The Battalion had suffered thirty casualties (fifteen killed) including several officers and seniors. In 1st Guards Brigade sector a Corps river crossing had been defeated and only one small penetration had been made down the whole Escaut Line.
In the south, tanks from Panzer Gruppe von Kleist, the German main effort, reached the Channel late on 20/21 May. The BEF’s resolute defence of the Escaut caused General von Bock to switch the effort of Army Group B (a subsidiary to the attack in the south) to the Courtrai-Ypres axis, the BEF boundary with the Belgians, in order to outflank the Escaut position. A salient began to develop around Lille.
Lord Gort saw the trap and decided, despite Allied pressure, to save the BEF. After several confused meetings in Ypres on 22 May Lord Gort ordered the BEF to withdraw to the ‘Gort Line’ constructed during the winter. This released divisions to attack south into Panzer Gruppe von Kleist (the offensive never materialized), to secure Dunkirk and to strengthen the northern flank with the Belgians.
The Dunkirk Perimeter. 1st and 2nd Battalions
The 2nd Battalion withdrew from Pecq on 22 May to ill-prepared positions near Leers (east of Roubaix) but it was well supplied from the Lille NAAFI. On the 27th the Commanding Officer announced that 1st Division was to move to the Dunkirk perimeter. The intention “to march 55 miles back to the coast” produced misgivings!
On 26 May 1st Coldstream received orders regarding evacuation from Dunkirk, but with Army Group B attacking the BEF flank near Menin, the Battalion moved to Roncq (south of Menin). The German VI Armee broke through 5th Division at Houthem (near Ypres) and the position was only restored by a determined attack by 3rd Grenadiers, whose defence prevented Army Group B encircling the BEF. The 1st Coldstream withdrew (28 May) over Messines Ridge to Reninge, on the Yser, twelve miles from Dunkirk, down roads clogged with French, British and Belgian troops. (Belgium surrendered on 28 May). The Yser was the last significant obstacle south of the Dunkirk perimeter. The Battalion moved to Furnes, destroying its transport and keeping only the fighting vehicles. Dunkirk lay under a pall of smoke.
During 30 May German pressure increased north of Furnes; their 56th Division attempted to cross the Bergues-Furnes canal. 1st Coldstream was ordered to relieve a battalion on the canal, but No.1 Company, reaching the position in the dark, found Germans on the near bank. An immediate counter-attack was mounted, but the situation remained confused. The Adjutant, Captain George Burns, took over No 1 Company and the Transport Officer No 3. At first light mortars and artillery opened fire and the crossing was defeated.
Pressure on 1st Coldstream increased on 31 May; the 3rd Division was ordered to embark that night and No 4 Company formed the Battalion rearguard. By 0300 hours the Guardsmen – and thousands of other troops – were on the beach at La Panne waiting for the tide. On 1 June 1st Coldstream, each man with his rifle and equipment, returned to England.
The 2nd Coldstream had also been moving on 27 May from Roubaix, past Ploegsteert and Kemmelberg, to Locre, between Ypres and Bailleul, where it rested after marching thirty-two miles, and a thunderstorm soaked everyone. The Battalion marched a further fifteen miles, passing chaos in Poperinghe, to the Bergues-Furnes canal (with only a few miles in transport) before setting about the defence of a wide frontage astride a main route into the Dunkirk Perimeter. By late on 29 May 2nd Coldstream was dug in, but its strength was only 200 men. A detachment, 120 strong, later rejoined the Battalion from Houthem (near Hondschoote).
Troops, including wounded, straggled across the bridges all day, only ambulances being allowed to drive across. Two platoons of the Welsh Guards “marched across in formation, looking like Guardsmen and remarkably … well turned out compared with the rabble which was shuffling along the roads. It did us good to see them,” wrote the Commanding Officer. On the 30th the Coldstream was ordered to form the rearguard for the BEF, fighting until receiving orders to evacuate. Rations were scanty and ammunition short.
Shelling increased, but it was not until 1 June that the position became precarious. German tanks crossed the canal, forcing No 1 Company back onto No 3, both Company Commanders being killed; but the Battalion held on, before withdrawing to the beaches that night. The Guardsmen spent 2 June hiding from Stukas in dunes near Dunkirk until evening before leaving in various craft. Colonel Bootle-Wilbraham (now commanding the Brigade) and Major W.S. (‘Bunty’) Stewart Brown, Acting Commanding Officer, were picked up by HMS Sabre. No Coldstreamer was allowed to board without his weapon; but once aboard, cocoa was served in galvanized buckets, and most Guardsmen slept until reaching Dover.
The achievements of the Royal Navy and the ‘Little Ships’ of Dunkirk are well known. Dispersion to Reception Areas was another feat of improvisation; 545 trains were used to move the 338,226 men evacuated. Hundreds of volunteers produced tea and sandwiches. The 1st Battalion re-assembled at Aldershot, while the 2nd collected at Walton, near Wakefield. Reorganization and training against an invasion was the priority.
The recovery of the BEF was a major success, but it was not a victory. Almost all heavy equipment was lost: over 84,400 vehicles were abandoned, including 98% of the tanks. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister since 10 May, inspired the nation, but stated that “wars are not won by evacuations”. Britain had, however, recovered a third of a million trained Servicemen, and Dunkirk veterans went on to fight in every theatre of war. “Being evacuated,” wrote one, “was the start of the road back.”
The War Office Report later concluded that “without question the British soldier is at least as good as the German,” but it was clear how ill-equipped the BEF had been for the campaign. The BEF and RAF had gained valuable experience, but there was much to learn.
Months later the 1st Battalion Commanding Officer’s Bunting, battle-scarred and bloodied, arrived at Regimental Headquarters from HMS Winchelsea which had carried Colonel Cazenove back from the beaches. It now hangs in the 1st Battalion Sergeants’ Mess, a symbol of the Coldstreamers who maintained traditional standards and discipline under very difficult circumstances during the Dunkirk campaign.