April 1940, 6th and 7th Territorial Battalions
The Green Howards 6th and 7th Territorial Battalions are sent out to France in April 1940. These soldiers are very inexperienced and are only sent to France to help construct aerodromes. They are not equipped for fighting and it is expected that they will return to England in June to complete their training.
‘After the Germans invaded Holland and Belgium in the early hours of the 10th May, we had no news for over two weeks. We had our radios on all day and I remember hearing the announcement which started it all up. Up to then it had been the ‘Phoney War’. From that moment on we were all very anxious and only kept going by keeping in touch with other wives and praying for the men’s safety…
I was expecting a baby in August of that year and was faced with the possibility that my baby would never know his, or her father. However I was sustained by friends and family – so life went on.’ – Elspeth Swift, wife of Captain Peter Swift, 7th Battalion.
As the German Army continues its rapid advance the 6th and 7th Battalions are drawn into the battle. On the 17 May they are ordered to take up positions South of Arras, on the Canal du Nord. At 5 pm, with the enemy approaching, they are instructed to blow up the bridges over the canal.
Many civilians are killed when the main Arras-Cambrai bridge is blown up as it proves impossible to clear the bridge and set the charges before another wave of refugees attempt to cross.
On the 19 May both Battalions withdraw from the Canal du Nord. Over the next two days most of the 7th Battalion make their way to Gondecourt.
The 6th Battalion, and one company of the 7th Battalion, are ordered to join the build up of British troops around the city of Arras. They take up positions east of the city on the north bank of the River Scarpe at Roueux.
Just before dawn, on the 20 May, the 6th Battalion get into position. As the sun rises they discover that the enemy are just across the river. During the day shots are exchanged but the Germans make no attempt to cross the river. In the early hours of the 21 May the 6th Battalion receive orders to withdraw and next day they rejoin the 7th Battalion at Gondecourt.
The 7th Battalion manage to escape encirclement and march 100 miles over five days to reach Bray Dunes. Throughout their journey they are heavily bombed by Stukas and machine gunned by Messerschmitts. On the afternoon of the 31 May they move from Bray Dunes to Dunkirk and spend several hours working as stretcher bearers before being evacuated.
Just over a month ago the 6th Battalion were a group of inexperienced soldiers but now they are in the thick of the fighting knocking out enemy tanks and driving off a concentrated attack at Gravelines. They are then called on to help defend Dunkirk. Between the 29 and the 31 May they are engaged in continuous attacks. They are evacuated on the 31 May at 6pm.
‘I am so thankful to get back. I think that is what kept most of us going – it became a mania. I marched and dug and exhorted the men with one object in view; that I was determined to see you again…My Company was lucky we had no casualties on the Mole or on the sands from Bray Dunes to Dunkerque – about 6 miles in all, with no cover. We had a fortunate escape. My men were the bravest of the brave with no exceptions.’ – Captain Peter Swift writing to his wife, Elspeth, June 1940.
Swift survived Dunkirk but was killed in March 1942 while serving with the 7th Battalion in the North Africa.
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