On This Day…
On this page you will find significant events in the military history of Buckinghamshire, commemorated on the date of their original occurrence.
Bucks Battalion At Battle of Asiago
15/16 June, 1918: The 1/1st Bucks Battalion helped to stop the last great Austro-Hungarian attack of WW1 on the Asiago Plateau in Italy.
With their Spring offensive of 1918 on the western front failing to achieve the hoped-for break-through, and Allied defences growing stronger by the day, the German high command exerted pressure on its Austrian ally to attack on the Italian front in a bid to weaken the British and French defences in France and Belgium.
This manifested itself in a significant Austrian offensive in the lower Dolomites between the Asiago Plateau, above the Venetian Plain and the Piave River, which flows into the Mediterranean Sea near Venice. It was believed that a break-through in the mountains would threaten the Piave line from the rear and force the Italian army to withdraw or be cut off. The Italian, British and French armies had been planning their own attack in the area but the Austrians beat them to the punch.
The attack was launched behind a heavy artillery bombardment that commenced in the early hours of 15 June, much of the weight falling on units of the 48th (South Midland) Division, who were holding part of the line on the Asiago Plateau. The defences in this sector were particularly shallow, with only a few miles between the front line and the edge of the mountains. In order to provide some ‘depth’ the British had pushed out a line of outposts into no-man’s land while the main line of resistance ran in twists and turns through a densely-wooded area behind the Ghelpac Stream. In this area the tree cover favoured the attacker, allowing them to advance unobserved until almost at the British front-line trench. Although the Asiago Plateau had been a battlefield for some time, the tree cover remained largely intact in June, 1918.
General Officer Commanding 48 Division, Maj Gen Sir Robert Fanshawe, was an enthusiast for the German concept of ‘elastic’ defence. This involved holding the front line lightly and allowing the enemy to exhaust men and material in the break-in battle before counter-attacking from depth to drive them out again.
At Asiago, with very little space to trade, Fanshawe organised his defences to channel the enemy into a salient in which they could be attacked from three sides. This was achieved by creating two switch lines – Lemerle to the east and Cesuna to the west – running back from the front-line trench to form a pocket. His plan was to allow the Austrians to advance into the pocket, even though that meant temporarily losing the front-line trench, and then, when they were weakened from their assault, launch a massive counter-blow to eject them and, hopefully, pursue them across no-mans-land and beyond. Fanshawe ensured that his brigades were familiar with his defensive plan and the battalions had practiced their parts in it in the days running up to the offensive.
The 48 Division front was held by two Brigades – 145 on the right and 143 on the left. The former had two battalions in the line – 1/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 1/5th Gloucesters while the latter held its portion of the front with a single battalion, 1/5th Royal Warwickshires. The other units were in reserve at various locations in the vicinity while 144 Brigade was a bit further away.
Following the opening bombardment, but before the enemy infantry assault, 145 Brigade, under the temporary command of the Lt Col L L C Reynolds of the Bucks Battalion, moved 1/1st Bucks into the Lemerle Switch and Polderhoek Trench and 143 Brigade ordered 1/8th Royal Warwickshires into the Cesuna Switch These movements were in line with Fanshawe’s defensive plan.
It should be noted that at this time the Division was at about 70% of its established combat strength due to Spanish Influenza, sometimes known to the troops in Italy as ‘Mountain Fever’. For a few days prior to the attack, only Fanshawe and his Intelligence Officer were fit for duty at Divisional HQ and the Corps Commander, Lord Cavan, had to send some of his own staff forward to plug the gaps. One battalion – 1/6th Royal Warwickshires – was down to 379 effectives and during the month of June 1/1st Bucks had reported 103 ‘flu cases.
The outpost line was pulled in at about 0530, two hours after the opening artillery bombardment, and the enemy infantry assault commenced at around 0700, making good use of the thick tree cover and a dense morning mist to quickly break-in at a number of locations. The 1/4th Oxfords were pushed back slightly, but held on to a piece of high ground known as Hill 1021 while the 1/1st Bucks Battalion in the Lemerle Switch managed to ensure the right flank remained intact. Dangerous gaps opened between the Oxfords and the 1/5th Gloucesters, and between the Gloucesters and 1/5th Royal Warwickshires, and through these the attacking infantry advanced.
However, Fanshawe’s defensive plan worked broadly as planned. The Austrian infantry exhausted themselves in the break-in battle, failing to achieve the desired break-through, thanks in no small measure to the steadfastness of the 1/1st Bucks and the 1/8th Royal Warwickshires in the switch lines. An initial counter-attack that evening re-gained some ground before getting bogged down. A more deliberate advance, early the following morning using additional reserves, successfully drove the enemy back, regained the front-line trench, and launched a pursuit over the Ghelpac Stream and into the Austrian lines before pulling back again.
48 Division’s casualties in the battle were relatively light by western front standards. A total of 16 officers and 153 other ranks were killed with 44 officers and 490 other ranks wounded. Nine officers and 21 ORs were listed as missing. Of the total casualties at least 196 were gunners, many of whom died in the opening bombardment, during which the enemy artillery targeted British gun positions with HE and gas shells. 1/4th Oxfords and 1/5th Gloucesters, who bore the brunt of the infantry attack, suffered the largest number of fatalities, 42 and 36 respectively. 1/1st Bucks recorded eight dead and 42 wounded. Many of those who fell on this day now lie in Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries in the woods at Boscon, Grenezza and Magnaboschi.
The 1/1st Bucks Battalion’s 8 dead from the 15 June fighting all lie in Boscon British Cemetery, in the woods just yards from where they fell. They are:
L/Cpl George Abbott (23), son of Arthur and Lavinia Abbott of Hanslope, Bucks.
Pte Albert Allen, husband of Nellie Allen, 8 Mill Street, High Wycombe, Bucks.
Pte William Thomas Godfrey (24), son of Frank and Sarah Godfrey, 6 Magdalen Road, Oxford.
Pte Percy Edmund Harrison (26), son of John and Christian Harrison, Douglas, Isle of Man.
Pte Sydney George Miles (41), son of Annie and William Miles, Venn St, Amersham, Bucks.
Pte H E Boyle (no further details reorded).
Pte Lesley Vincent Greenough (21), son of Arthur and Sarah Greenough, Hammersmith, London.
Pte George Henry Norcott (23), son of George and Annie Norcott, Hammersmith, London.
Another victim of the attack was the 48th Division’s GOC, Maj Gen Sir Robert Fanshawe. Despite having planned an elastic defence which worked pretty much as he had intended, Fanshawe was dismissed a few days later and sent back to the UK to command a home-based division for the remainder of the war. The penetration of a thinly-held front line, although part of his intended scheme of manoeuvre, apparently proved unacceptable to his boss, Lord Cavan.
Bucks Battalion CO Wins George Medal
8 June, 1944: Two days after splashing ashore on D-Day, Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Sale, Commanding Officer of 1st Bucks Battalion, won the George Medal for pulling ammunition from a burning dump on SWORD Beach, Normandy.
The ammunition had been set alight by a lone German aircraft that dropped a single bomb on a DUKW amphibious vehicle, the explosion of which ignited the dump. About half the dump was saved and Sale received the George Medal for gallantry.
The Bucks Battalion’s role as part of No 6 Beach Group for the D-Day landings had ceased by 22 June and the unit moved inland to defend the Ouistreham locks on the Caen canal. The Beach Group was formally dissolved on 10 July 1944.
Lt Col Sale was succeeded by Major E. A. ‘Peter’ Carse, pre-war commander of the battalion’s Chesham Detachment, who had won the MBE for his efforts during the same incident.
The George Medal was instituted on 24 September, 1940, by King George VI as a second-level civilian decoration, intended to be presented to those performing acts of bravery meriting recognition by the United Kingdom.
The George Medal is the second highest gallantry medal that a civilian can be awarded, next to the George Cross. Military personnel are eligible for the George Medal if their act does not qualify for a military gallantry award – eg an act that was not ‘in the face of the enemy’.
The medal warrant states:
The Medal is intended primarily for civilians and award in our military services is to be confined to actions for which purely military honours are not normally granted.
Bucks Battalion Lands on D-Day
6 June, 1944: The First Buckinghamshire Battalion landed on SWORD Beach on D-Day as part of No 6 Beach Group.
The survivors of the Defence of Hazebrouck in May 1940 who managed to make it to the Dunkirk beaches and back to England, formed the nucleus of a regenerated battalion which, in March 1943, was selected to take part in Operation OVERLORD, the allied invasion of Europe.
The battalion, commanded by Lt Col Ronald Sale, was tasked to be the infantry component of No 6 Beach Group, supporting 3rd Division’s landing on SWORD beach near Ouistreham on the Normandy coast at the mouth of the River Orne and to the north of the city of Caen.
Beach Groups were key elements of the OVERLORD plan. They were tri-Service, all-arms groupings of infantry, engineers, transport, medical RASC, RAMC, pioneers, military police, RAF and RN personnel, whose job was to facilitate the landing of men, vehicles and supplies across the assault beaches. Tasks included mine and obstacle clearance as well as organising the defence of the beaches against enemy counter-attack.
Training for D-Day took place at Gailes Camp near Troon in Scotland and then Ayr Racecourse and on the Clyde and Argyllshire sea lochs, with a series of exercises on beaches in South Wales and in Hampshire. After a return to Ayr in September 1943 for further exercises, the battalion moved to Petworth in May 1944 ahead of the invasion.
No 6 Beach Group landed behind No 5 Group, which had hit the beach with the first wave, losing its commanding officer, Lt Col D H V Board to a sniper in the process. Lt Col Sale assumed command of both groups for the duration of the landings.
Landing with the Bucks Battalion that day was 18-years-old Bill Adams. Recalling the moment they learned they were to be part of a beach group, he explained:
“This was greeted with mixed emotions as we had envisaged ourselves splashing through the surf, wielding bloodied bayonets. Our battalion had been the rearguard in 1940, holding up the Germans at Hazebrouck…there was definitely a feeling of retribution in the air…”
Bucks Gunners Arrive in India
3 June, 1942. 99th (Royal Bucks Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (TA) arrived at Bombay (now Mumbai), India.
Following the Dunkirk campaign, the 99th had served as a coastal defence regiment in Yorkshire before moving to Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire in December, 1941. They took part in exercises in Wiltshire in February, 1942 before leaving the UK for India in April of that year, as part of 2nd Division. This followed the loss of Burma to Japanese forces, who captured Rangoon in March, 1942 and then advanced to the border with India, British, Imperial and Chinese troops withdrawing in their path.
99 Regiment’s vehicles and guns were moved to Birkenhead on 29 March and loaded on SS Clan Lamont. The officers and men then went by rail to be embarked on HMT Empress of Canada at Glasgow on 12 April. This became part of the huge convoy W.S.18, with 43,000 troops on 21 transport ships and 12 escort vessels.
By way of Freetown in Sierra Leone and Cape Town, South Africa, the convoy reached Bombay on 3 June 1942. Training on board had taken place from 0930-1230 and from 1430-1700 daily. All troops wore boots up to midday and anti-mosquito precautions were enforced after sunset. Shore leave was allowed in Cape Town with a number of route marches also taking place during the three days spent there. Following shore leave in Bombay, the 99th entrained for Ahmednagar on 4 June.
First Bucks Battalion – Battle of Hazebrouck May, 1940
Following the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May, 1940, the First Bucks Battalion advanced into Belgium towards the Dyle Line, to the east of Brussels, and then began a slow withdrawal back into France. By the morning of 25 May the battalion has arrived at the French town of Hazebrouck and started to improve the local defences.
They didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to play a key role in the Defence of Dunkirk, helping to delay the advancing German army and buy time for the British Expeditionary Force to be evacuated from the channel beaches. You can view the battalion’s dispositions at the start of the battle here.
28 May – the heroic defence ends.
The night of 27/28 was eerily quiet, both sides no doubt licking their wounds from the day’s fighting. At stand-to, as dawn broke over the town, enemy mortars began to range in on the orphanage and it was not long before an ammunition lorry was hit, adding to the general din.
At 0900 an enemy artillery battery appeared less than half-a-mile away, firing at Cassel from an open field. It was engaged by two Vickers guns from the roof of the orphanage, making life uncomfortable for the German gunners. However, the enemy returned fire with interest, using six-barrelled nebelwerfers.
At 1300 a number of tanks trundled along Rue de la Sous-Prefecture, firing at the orphanage at point-blank range. There was little the defenders could do to stop them but they returned fire anyway with rifles, Bren guns and anti-tank rifles. RSM Albert Hawtin is reported in one account to have knocked out a tank by dropping a grenade into its open turret from an upstairs window. Despite individual acts of bravery, the end of the battle was in sight and that must have been obvious to both sides. But the defenders continued their dogged defence into the afternoon before final disaster struck. According to the Regimental War Chronicles, at about 1630 Maj Heyworth was attempting to cross the street to the former GHQ building when he was hit by a sniper’s bullet and killed. Command then fell on the shoulders of Maj Elliot Viney, who decided to evacuate the orphanage and take up positions in the small, walled garden outside. Adjutant, Capt James Ritchie, died at around this time, attempting to leave by another exit.
Viney’s plan was to hold out until dark and then try to get his men away. However, this was not to be. They were spotted by a German patrol and Viney took the understandable decision to surrender. The defence of Hazebrouck was at an end.
Hazebrouck – The Aftermath
According to the Regimental War Chronicle, 10 officers and about 200 other ranks, mostly from the rifle companies, managed to find their way to Dunkirk and from there back to England. The others were either dead or prisoners of war, marching into captivity for the duration of the conflict. Among those taken prisoner was stand-in Commanding Officer, Maj Elliot Viney, who would be awarded the DSO for his leadership during the battle.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database shows that between 27 and 28 May, 1940, 37 Bucks Battalion deaths were recorded. These include 21 buried in Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery, including Maj Heyworth, Capt James Ritchie and 2Lt Martin Preston. One is buried at Le Grand Hasard Military Cemetery near Morbecque, one at Nieppe-Bois British Cemetery at Vieux-Berquin, about 3 miles south east of the town, and two at Borre British Cemetery, just to the east. This is a WW1 cemetery which contains just 5 WW2 burials. Finally, 14 names of Bucks Battalion men are inscribed on the Dunkirk Memorial, which records 4500 casualties from the 1939-40 campaign who have no known grave.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to the bravery, steadfastness and pure determination of the Bucks Battalion was paid by their German foes. A German radio broadcast at the time stated: “…the defenders of Hazebrouck not only delayed the advance but resisted in a manner truly worthy of the highest traditions of the British Army.”
145 Brigade Commander, Brigadier Nigel Somerset was angry about the way he and his men had been left to bear the brunt of the German attack. He hung on at Cassel until 29 May before breaking out, and was taken prisoner trying to make his way to Dunkirk. Writing in his POW Diary he stated:
“I realised we were the Joe Soaps of Dunkirk, that we were being sacrificed so that as many British and French as possible could get away and get all the kudos. I felt very bitter.’
But that understandable bitterness should not over-shadow the undoubted gallantry of the Bucks Battalion’s stand at Hazebrouck – gallantry that did not end there. Quartermaster, Capt Cecil ‘Patsy” Pallett, who together with 2Lt Michael Sherwell, a platoon commander with A Coy, managed to slip away from Hazebrouck at some point during the 28th, after C Coy was overrun. They made their way south to La Motte au Bois where they joined a part of Royal West Kents who were holding out there. Pallett went on to lead a bayonet charge to drive a party of SS infantry out of the village, buying time for his small band to pull out and head for Dunkirk from where they were able to make it back to England. He was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for this action. Sherwell also received the MC for his part in the defence of Hazebrouck.
27 May, 1940 – the enemy attacks…
The battle for Hazebrouck opened on the damp and misty morning of 27 May. Initially the enemy attacked to the south-west of the town, with tanks of 8 Pz Division over-running D Coy, 2 Royal Sussex in the Bois des Huit Rues. Shortly after this, OC D Coy, Capt Hugh Saunders, spotted an enemy vehicle near the level crossing on the western edge of his sector and tried to engage it by calling in fire from a nearby 25-pounder of 392 Battery, Royal Artillery. This was probably the enemy’s recce element, and Saunders was a little angry that the gunners missed the target. However, the gun position had been noted and, as Saunders later wrote:
“We had not been back in our Company HQ for more than a quarter of an hour before three light tanks appeared and swooped down on the 25-pounder, smashing the gun and wounding all its crew save one.”
The gun crew retreated through one of 17 Platoon’s posts, pursued by two tanks which fired into the weapon pits before making off. There were no casualties among 17 Platoon but the episode provided a taste of what was to come.
At about 1000, Saunders heard from 2Lt Tom Garside, commanding 18 Platoon, that a large force of enemy armoured vehicles was approaching from the direction of St Omer. As they waited for the next development, the battalion water truck arrived to replenish their water supply. This was the signal for the enemy to attack and just as the truck stopped by the Coy HQ building, an enemy tank approached from Le Cinq Rues and put a round straight through the side of the bowser. The German vehicles were heavily engaged by 17 Platoon’s anti-tank rifles and withdrew when one of them was hit.
By late morning all three of the battalion’s rifle companies had been engaged by enemy armour as tanks probed the defences and German artillery and mortars pounded their positions. The tower of the town’s St Eloi church was the obvious place for an Observation Post: the enemy knew it and made it pretty hot for the occupant, Lt John Palmer, 98 Fd Regt, RA Forward Observation Officer (FOO) who was forced to evacuate for a time. He returned later, however, and continued to direct artillery fire on enemy positions until the telephone line between him and the guns at Le Souverain, to the south-east, was cut.
Meanwhile, D Company continued to attract enemy attention. A strong force of enemy infantry was spotted moving up along the road from St Omer and was engaged by 17 Platoon and the battalion’s single 3” mortar, sending them running for cover. But within minutes the enemy had re-organised themselves and were pouring machine gun fire onto the 17 Platoon position, making it impossible for the defenders to raise their heads.
The main attack seemed to be developing in the C Coy sector, and while D Coy were being pinned down, Capt Rupert Barry and his platoons were using their Boys rifles to fight off an assault by 5 enemy tanks. Barry was the only regular officer in the battalion, having been transferred in from 2 Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry the previous month.
The Bucks Battalion soldiers fought on in the face of the heavy enemy onslaught, their effective anti-tank screen of 25-pounder, 2-pounder, and 25mm Hotchkiss guns and the infantry’s .55in Boys anti-tank rifles, accounting for many panzers. Eventually, however, the attackers’ superior mass made the difference and enemy troops and armour managed to break through and over-run 14 Platoon and surround and cut off another, possibly 13 Platoon. With C Coy in deep trouble, Heyworth ordered A Coy to establish a new defensive line in the buildings behind C’s position to support Barry and his men’s withdrawal. The QM, Capt Cecil ‘Patsy’ Pallet, a WW1 veteran, and Transport Officer, Capt Bligh Mason, gathered up their B Echelon drivers to provide additional support for the withdrawal but the Germans had managed to get between C and their support and they were effectively cut off.
Meanwhile, to the east, B Coy was engaging enemy infantry advancing down the railway line. Beating off the initial assault, the company held their ground in the face of enemy machine gun fire and sniping which appeared to come from buildings to the north of the railway. Lt Clive Foster of 11 Platoon took some men to help to recover an anti-tank gun that was stuck on the enemy side of the railway line. They managed to hitch it to a 15cwt truck and pull it across 6 tracks to relative safety in the face of heavy enemy fire. However, on returning to the company position Foster found that they had pulled out and a large force of enemy infantry was approaching.
B Company commander, Capt Saunders, could see large numbers of enemy forces pouring into the town and there was little he could do to stop them.
“By 7pm the enemy were well inside the town and we could hear firing in the streets. In several places fires had broken out from incendiary shells and clouds of smoke filled the air, but Battalion HQ was still intact.”
Saunders decided to try to make contact with Heyworth at HQ and Pte Page volunteered to go. However, the fire was so intense that movement in the streets was impossible and after several attempts it was decided to wait for darkness and try again.
Meanwhile, at the HQ building, 27-years-old MO, Capt Trevor Gibbens was struggling to treat the large number of wounded arriving at his Regimental Aid Post (RAP) in the cellar. He recorded:
“There was clearly not going to be much opportunity to get the wounded away for some days…I did the rounds in quiet moments, gave plenty of morphia and sips of water…”
A radio message was sent to Brigade HQ, using Morse as speech was no longer possible, explained the situation and asked for help. The reply was that help was coming from 44 Division in the south. It never materialised.
By this time, resistance throughout the town was crumbling and enemy forces were closing in on battalion HQ from three sides. The rifle companies had been surrounded and cut off, reduced down to platoon-sized groups, stubbornly holding out where they could.
At 2030 the enemy broke through the D and C Coy positions and pushed on towards the centre of town. In the absence of any orders from HQ, Capt Saunders took it upon himself to order the survivors of D Coy to get away as best they could.
Meanwhile, the HQ garrison continued to hold out. Private Perkins, a D Coy runner who had drifted back to the orphanage recalled:
“Myself, along with other HQ personnel, took up our positions with our rifles at every available window…The building was now getting in a bad way, one part of it had already collapsed…”
By nightfall, all contact between HQ and the companies had been lost. Heyworth sent out two patrols: one to find the B Echelon transport and the other to B Coy. 2Lt Martin Preston headed for the main square to locate the transport but was killed at Place du General de Gaulle. 2Lt David Stebbings, the Intelligence Officer, finding the B Coy positions deserted, returned with the news. At that point it was clear that Battalion headquarters and HQ Company were the only elements of the battalion in a state to continue the fight.
Winslow Rifle Volunteers Formed
17 May, 1861: The Secretary of State for War officially accepted the 7th Bucks (Winslow) Rifle Volunteer Corps. It had originally been formed as a subdivision of the 3rd (Buckingham) RVC on 17 December 1860. It was then absorbed by the Buckingham corps to form the 3rd Bucks (Buckingham and Winslow) RVC in 1863.
Fears of invasion by France were never far from the minds of successive British governments throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. During the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), a large number of volunteer corps were formed throughout the country only to be stood down when the conflict came to an end.
However, although Britain and France had formed a military alliance against the Russians during the Crimean War ((1853-1856), by 1858 tensions between the two had increased as a consequence of the Orsini Affair, an attempt by Italian nationalists, backed by English radicals, to assassinate Napoleon III in Paris.
Faced with a renewed threat of a French invasion, and with large elements of the regular army already committed to colonial duties overseas, the Government of the day, encouraged by a particularly noisy media campaign, led by The Times, decided in 1859 to re-create the Volunteer Corps movement. The men of Buckinghamshire were not slow in coming forward. Thomas Fremantle of Swanbourne House, later 2nd Lord Cottesloe, commanded the Winslow subdivision until 1870. Fremantle’s second in command was Dr Thomas Newham, the unit’s rifles being issued from his surgery.
An early venture by the Winslow sub-division was a march out to Hogston in October 1861 for exercises that ‘evidently “astonished the natives”’ when a ‘mimic’ charge was made, and two volleys fired. In July 1865 the Winslow men marched out to Swanbourne and, after drill, visited the Red Lion Inn, the landlord, John Green, being one of the members.
Bucks Battalion ‘T’ Force Men Liberate Delft
8 May, 1945: Elements of 1/1st Bucks Battalion ‘T’ Force liberate Delft in the Netherlands.
In February, 1945, the whole of the 1/1st Bucks Battalion was designated to be part of ‘T Force’, a joint US-British Army unit created to target and secure German scientific and industrial technology before it could be destroyed by the retreating enemy or looters, or fall into the hands of the advancing Russians.
T(Target) Force units were intended to accompany each of the allied armies as they advanced eastward, and the Bucks Battalion was originally allocated to the British 2nd Army. However, as the war progressed it was decided, at short notice, to split the Bucks, with two companies – B and D – being assigned to the 2nd Army, along with 5 Kings, while A and C were allocated to the Canadian 1st Army.
T Force units were tasked with seizing and holding installations of special military and civil interest such as factories, experimental establishments, laboratories, radar stations, secret weapons testing facilities, and V-weapon launch sites. The Americans had established similar forces for the North-West Europe campaign in July 1944 but 21st Army Group did not do so until early 1945.
‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies were the first T Force personnel to enter the Netherlands on 7 May. A detachment under Captain Lowe were the very first allied troops into Rotterdam. On 8 May a group from the pioneer and signal platoons, again under Lowe, liberated the city of Delft, receiving the official welcome intended for the commander of 1st Canadian Division. With Lowe somewhat embarrassed, they managed to slip away to take the nearby radar installation that was their target. At Norden they then captured the transmitter station used to broadcast the German propagandist, William Joyce, perhaps better known as Lord Haw-Haw, to the UK. Joyce himself was captured by the British near Flensburg close to the German-Danish border, on 29 May, 1945. Convicted of high treason he was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in London on 3 January, 1946.
Bucks Yeomen Return from WW1
5 May 1919:The remaining men of the 101st (Bucks and Berks) Battalion, the Machine Gun Corps, finally returned to England at the end of World War 1.
The German Spring Offensive in 1918 and the heavy casualties sustained by the Allies as they fought to stem the enemy advance, forced a reallocation of British military resources.
As part of this shift, General Sir Edmund Allenby’s campaign against the Ottoman Turks, in Egypt and Palestine, which had seen some spectacular successes during 1917 at Gaza, Beersheba, El Mughar and the capture of Jerusalem, was deliberately stalled in order to release troops for the Western Front.
The 1/1st Royal Bucks Hussars (Bucks Yeomanry), who had seen heavy fighting at Gallipoli in 1915, operating as infantry, and later, back in the cavalry role in Egypt and Palestine, together with 1/1st Berkshire Yeomanry, were among Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) units directed to reinforce the BEF.
But with the latter’s critical requirement being for infantry rather than cavalry, the Bucks and Berks Yeomen were ordered to swap their horses for Vickers machine guns as they were amalgamated and re-rolled as the 101st Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps.
Their beloved horses were handed in on 4 April 1918 and the new battalion embarked for France onboard the troopship SS Leasowe Castle, departing Alexandria for Marseilles on 26 May. The ship was torpedoed about 100 miles north-west of Alexandria, sinking in 90 minutes with the loss of 101 lives including 13 officers and 79 other ranks on the military passenger list.
The survivors were returned to Egypt where they transferred to another ship and finally reached France on 21 June. They would serve with distinction on the Western Front until the armistice when they found themselves at Oudenarde in Belgium, the scene of one of the Duke of Marlborough’s famous victories in 1709.
With hostilities over, the army quickly set about demobilising and units were reduced down to small cadres of personnel. In the case of 101st (Bucks and Berks) battalion, the cadre consisted of 133 men who returned to Dover on 5 May, 1919.
When battle honours were officially awarded by the War Office in 1924 those attributed to the Royal Bucks Hussars included Suvla, Scimitar Hill, Gallipoli 1915, Egypt 1915-17, Gaza, El Mughar, Nebi Samwil, and Palestine 1917-18, but also Arras 1918, Scarpe 1918, Courtrai, and Ypres 1918 – the names charting a course of distinguished service in two key theatres of the global conflict.
Militia Commander Sacked!
4 May 1763: The notorious John Wilkes, MP for Aylesbury, was dismissed from command of the Bucks Militia for criticising the King in a magazine article.
A ‘colourful’ and controversial character, Wilkes was one of the 10 company commanders of the ‘new militia’ raised in Bucks in 1759. He rose to the rank of Lt Col in 1762, assuming command in succession to Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe, who resigned from the role on his appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
A radical in political outlook, Wilkes had, nonetheless, proved a conscientious militia officer, although Edward Gibbon, the famous historian of ancient Rome and an officer of the South Hampshire Militia, on meeting him during a regimental camp at Winchester, described him as ‘a thorough profligate in principle as in practise; his character is infamous, his life stained with every vice, and his conversation bawdy’.
Gibbon’s unflattering depiction has a ring of authenticity, particularly given Wilkes’ membership of Dashwood’s Medmenham Brotherhood, sometimes referred to as the Order of Knights of West Wycombe or perhaps best known as the Hell Fire Club.
However, his removal from command of the militia came not as a result of his nocturnal activities at West Wycombe’s Hell Fire Caves, but from an article in Issue 45 of his satirical magazine The North Briton (think Private Eye), in which he attacked King George III, claiming he was complicit in deceiving the public on peace terms concluded with France.
Languishing in the Tower of London, Wilkes wrote to his friend and benefactor, Earl Temple, the Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, that he was ‘happy in these days of peace to leave so excellent a corps in that perfect harmony, which has from the beginning subsisted’.
DORA Volunteers to Fight the French
1 May 1798: A total of 625 volunteers were enlisted for home defence at Newport Pagnell, 39 at Aylesbury, and 119 at Buckingham under powers set out in the new Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), signed into law the previous month.
With much of Britain’s standing Army fully committed on the continent and elsewhere, the Defence of the Realm Act was one of a number of wide-ranging plans drawn up by the UK government in response to fears of invasion by the French, a common condition in Britain for long periods of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The 1798 Act permitted the raising of armed associations, the government hoping to encourage participation in a home defence force from what it described as ‘respectable house-holders’. The Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, the Marquess of Buckingham, set his sights a little higher, hoping that ‘persons of a better description’ would come forward.
The law was written with a light touch. Instead of stipulating the basis on which the volunteers would serve, it allowed the new citizen soldiers to set their own rules and regulations, including limits to their obligation. So, for example, those who enrolled at and around Newport Pagnell stated that they were prepared to go only 10 miles from the town in the event of French invasion. Those enrolled at Aylesbury and Buckingham were a bit more adventurous, signing up to serve within one day’s march of the town in case of riots, but anywhere in the county if it came to repelling the French invaders. “Fighting them on the beaches” would have to be a task for others, it seems!
Oakley Man Wins Victoria Cross at St Quentin
28 April 1917: Oakley-born Company Serjeant Major (CSM) Edward Brooks of 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, a Territorial Force battalion, wins the Victoria Cross at Fayet, near St Quentin in northern France.
In mid-March the Germans withdrew to the newly-prepared Hindenburg Line, pursued by the Allies, including 61st Division, to which 2/4th OBLI was attached as part of 184th Infantry Brigade.
After spending a week at Honlon village, 184 Brigade was warned off to conduct a raid on the German outpost line opposite Fayet, just in front of the Hindenburg Line in which 2/4th OBLI was scheduled to take part. The intent was to penetrate a portion of the enemy’s front line, kill or capture as many Germans as possible, and then retire. The plan was to pass the raiders through a gap in an unoccupied section of the German line, and conduct a sweeping movement to take the enemy from the flank and the rear.
CSM Brooks (34), was in the second wave as his battalion attacked. The VC citation, published in the London Gazette, records:
“Seeing that the first wave had been checked by an enemy machine gun at close quarters, on his own initiative and regardless of personal danger, he rushed forward from the second wave with the objective of capturing the gun. Killing one of the gunners with his revolver, and bayoneting another, the remainder of the gun’s crew made off, leaving the gun in his possession.
“CSM Brooks then turned the machine gun on the retreating enemy, after which he carried it back to our lines. By his courage and initiative, he undoubtedly prevented many casualties, and greatly added to the success of the operations.”
Edward Brooks, was born in Oakley, Bucks, the son of Mr and Mrs Thomas Brooks. Educated at the local village school, he left home at 13 to work at the Huntley and Palmer biscuit factory in Reading and later as a labourer for Messrs Knowles and Sons, a well-known building contractor in Oxford
He enlisted in the Grenadier Guards on 9 January, 1902, and was, somewhat ironically, a member of an honour guard for a visit to Britain of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He transferred to the Army Reserve in January, 1905, being discharged, at the end of his reserve liability, in January, 1914.
Brooks enlisted in 2/4th OBLI, on 19 October, 1914, not long after the outbreak of war, being promoted to L/Cpl the same day. He was promoted to Sgt in May, 1915 just before the battalion left for the front, and was promoted again to Warrant Officer and appointed Company Serjeant Major on 29 July of that year.
CSM Brooks received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace, after which he travelled to Oxford for a civic reception before being driven home to Headington where he received gifts paid for by public subscription from the neighbourhood. He returned to the front but was later hospitalised with rheumatism and evacuated back to the Southern General Hospital in Oxford. He was finally discharged from the army on May, 1920.
After the war he worked as a bricklayer and then at the Morris Motor Works at Cowley. He died at his home at Morrell Avenue, Oxford, in 1944, and is buried in the city’s Rose Hill cemetery. A VC plaque was unveiled at Oakley on 28 April 2017 and a blue plaque at his former home in Headington in July 2017. Edward Brooks Barracks at Abingdon was named in his honour by the Ministry of Defence in 2009. His VC is in the collection of the Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum at Winchester.
Bucks Yeomen Escort King Louis XVIII from Aylesbury to Stanmore
Bucks Gunners Help To Relieve Kohima
18-20 April 1944: The 99th (Royal Bucks Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, supported 6th Infantry Brigade in forcing a way into the town of Kohima to relieve the garrison under siege from the Japanese.
In March 1944 the Imperial Japanese Army launched an offensive towards India’s North-East frontier. Their aims were to forestall a planned British invasion of Burma, capture the allied supply lines on the Imphal Plain and cut the road between Dimapur and Imphal at Kohima. With Imphal in their hands the Japanese would be well-placed to disrupt air supplies to China and to conduct air attacks against targets in India.
In an attempt to achieve this, they threw 100,000 men into the fight against the Assam frontier stations of Imphal and Kohima and conducted an earlier diversionary attack in the Arakan. This latter advance was defeated at the Battle of the Admin Box but by April 1944 the allied troops at Kohima and Imphal were surrounded.
Kohima was held by a TA battalion, the 4th Royal West Kents, and elements of the Assam Rifles, the Shere Regiment and the Burma Rifles.
South East Asia Commander, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, ordered the British 2nd Division including 99 (RBY) Field Regiment to move to Dimapur where it joined with 33 Corps (Lt Gen Sir Montagu Stopford) to relieve Kohima and to open the road to Imphal, which was being supplied by air.
6 Brigade broke through to Kohima between 18 and 20 April, a grim struggle ensuing for the surrounding jungle-clad hills and ridges in cold weather. At Kohima itself only the width of the former District Commissioner’s tennis court separated the British and Japanese positions. The stench of death was overwhelming with bodies from both sides lying unburied in scenes reminiscent of the worst of the trenches of the Great War. 6 Brigade undertook a major offensive on 4-7 May, the Japanese pulling back after a 64-day battle, which cost British and Indian forces over 4,000 casualties and the Japanese over 7,000.
Lieutenant Colonel J. W. H. James, who had assumed command of 99 Fd Regt on 26 March, was mortally wounded by a sniper on 4 May, Lionel Tetley taking over. Captain Richard Boyd-Thomson from Soulbury was wounded on a patrol which had to abandon him on 3 May; his dismembered body was recovered later.
With ranges from the gun lines to the enemy often down to less than 2000 yards, the artillery were, for much of the time, firing over open sights, instead of the more usual, indirect method, used when the target is not visible. Normally, a Forward Observation Officer (FOO) identifies and selects targets and directs the battery’s fire onto them while the battery’s Command Post personnel work out bearing and elevation using mathematical calculations and range tables taking account of wind direction, air pressure, precipitation, elevation of the firing position and the target, barrel-wear etc. Firing over open sights dispenses with much of the technical assistance since the gunner can see the target, align the barrel by sight, and adjust range and azimuth (direction) by observing the fall of shot. Forward Observation Officers (FOOs), operating in the front line with the infantry, found themselves involved in some of the hand-to-hand fighting for which this battle is noted.
There were many acts of bravery. One such example was Captain Bryan Bonsor of Liscombe Park, Soulbury, who won the MC for his gallantry and leadership on 13 May during an attack on the District Commissioner’s Bungalow, in which a 3.7” howitzer was brought up to fire directly at the Japanese position at a range of just 200 yards.
2nd Division opened the Imphal road on 22 June and 99 Regiment continued to support follow-on operations until withdrawn for rest and training in August 1944.
Battle of Tombois Farm – Hindenburg Line
16/17 April, 1917:The 1/1st Buckinghamshire Battalion took part on a successful night attack on Tombois Farm, a German strongpoint in front of the mighty Hindenburg Line.
In mid-March, 1917, after the pummelling they had taken during the Battles of Verdun and the Somme the previous spring, summer and autumn, the Germans conducted a deliberate withdrawal to a new, pre-prepared line, running from just North of Arras to the River Aisne, near Reims, in places more than 30km east of the original front line. This was known as the Hindenburg Line or Siegfried Stellung.
The new line had been built by Belgian and Russian labourers. It was over 8 miles deep in places with numerous ferro-concrete bunkers, deep dugouts and machine-gun emplacements, fronted by thick belts of barbed wire. In moving to the Hindenburg Line the Germans straightened the front, shortening it by 25 miles and releasing 10 divisions from ground-holding duties to prepare for future offensive operations.
Tombois Farm is located about 1000 yards east of the British outpost line at that time. It is on the southern side of the road from Lempire to Vendhuile, to the east of Epehy, and just to the right of the north-bound carriageway of the A26 (Autoroute des Anglais), which now runs from Calais to Reims but did not exist in 1917.
On the night of 15 April, the Bucks Battalion moved into the line after a short period of rest, receiving orders to attack Tombois Farm the following night. At the same time, 1/4th Berkshires were to capture Guillemont farm on the right while 1/5th Royal Warwickshires were to assault and capture Catelet Copse and Le Petit Priel Farm on the left. Zero was fixed for 2330 on 16 April.
Weather conditions for the attack were atrocious – pitch dark with pouring rain and a gale blowing towards the enemy – giving platoon commanders a major headache, first in finding their forming-up positions and then in trying to keep their men moving in the right direction across 1000 yds of open ground with few landmarks.
At 2345 the enemy opened fire with machine guns and rifles, sending up a large number of flares from the farm and the trenches to either side. They also put down a ‘moderate’ artillery barrage, fortunately well behind the attacking troops. The farm itself was strongly held, and protected by a deep belt of wire, which, combined with heavy fire, stopped C and D Coys on the right flank and they were withdrawn to reform for a second attempt.
Meanwhile, B Coy on the left, attracting less fire, managed to penetrate the wire, got into the enemy trenches and began to clear the farm buildings, although the enemy garrison was still holding the orchard to the south.
By 0300 both the farm and the orchard had been cleared and an enemy counter-attack was successfully broken up by B Coy. C and D Coys, now reorganised, were sent forward again to help with consolidating the position, including digging new trenches to the north and east of the farm.
By daylight on the 17th the battalion was holding 3-400 yards of trench on either side of the farm and the enemy had withdrawn to new positions further east. At least 30 dead Germans were found in and around the farm. Nine prisoners and one machine gun were captured. The Bucks Battalion casualties were:
Officers (Wounded): Capt Reginald George Gregson-Ellis (died the following day, buried in Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension), 2/Lt J Jack, 2/Lt N S Flint, 2/Lt B C C Olivier, 2/Lt R F Chatham.
ORs. Killed – 18. Wounded – 48.
Many of those who died in the attack have no known grave and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. These include:
265695, Cpl Albert George Wright, (27), born Newport Pagnell; 265394, Pte William Stephen Burgess (20), Buckingham Road, Aylesbury; 265170, Cpl William Lawrence Raison, (23), Stony Stratford; 265172, Sjt Ernest Adams; 266541 Pte Charles Banks; 285068, Pte Harold Cecil Avery (17), Moseley Cottages, Naphill, High Wycombe; 285004, Pte John Roberts (35), Stirchley, Birmingham; 266881, Pte Benjamin Stone (39), Portland, Dorset; 265419, L/Cpl James McDermott; 265750, Pte Michael Cecil Keating; 265212, Pte William Joseph Burnham; 267588, Pte William Albert Rogers; 267505, L/Cpl William Henry Rootham (20); 267686, Pte Walter Phillips.
The following are buried in Unicorn Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Vandhuile, just a few yards south-west of Tombois Farm:
267715, Pte Alexander Scott (20), King’s Head Square, Aylesbury; 267498, Pte Ernest Edward Rose,(18), Huntingdon; 266860, Pte A G Rice (37), Weymouth, Dorset; 267715, Pte A Scott.
Miners’ Strike 1921 – Bucks Territorials Enrol For Defence Force To Guard Key Installations
13 April, 1921: Buckinghamshire Territorials were being enrolled to provide a Defence Force for key installations as part of the Government’s response to the miners’ strike.
The pre-1914 Territorial Force had not been given a role in providing aid to the civil power and, after consideration upon post-war reconstitution, it was decided again in 1920 that the Territorial Army (TA) would not be so used.
However, in 1921, with a miners’ strike and lock out raising fears of more general industrial unrest, the Government began to take steps to improve its ability to manage the likely impact of a coordinated national stoppage.
On 8 April Army Reservists were called out and, in the face of continuing War Office opposition to the use of Territorials, it was announced that an armed Defence Force would be raised for 90 days’ service in support of the police but under Army command. Territorials were invited to enlist and the force would be based in TA centres and organised by TA staff and officers. However, to appease the War Office concerns, it was decided that Territorials who wished to volunteer for the new force, would have to resign from the TA, on the understanding that they would be reinstated automatically after 90 days and any time spent on duty with the force would count towards their TA obligations. Nationwide at least 40,000 men enrolled by 13 April and possibly twice as many by the time the Defence Force was stood down on 5 July, 1921.
The announcement of the raising of a Bucks Battalion of the Defence Force was made on 12 April and subsequently a force of 259 men guarded the important railway junction at Didcot from 13 April to 5 July 1921, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Reynolds, wartime commander of the 1/1st Bucks Battalion. Defence Force personnel left Aylesbury for Didcot in scenes reminiscent of 1914. It proved a ‘long hot summer under canvas’: the chief object of officers’ attention was the regular disappearance of the mess sergeant to Epsom, Newbury and Ascot races.
In 1923, the military authorities supported legislation – The Special Constables Act (1923) – making permanent the 1914 arrangements whereby special constables could be sworn in during ‘any immediately apprehended disturbance’. Consequently, in the May 1926 general strike a total of 226,000 special constables and a 300,000 strong Civil Constabulary Reserve were raised under control of the Home Office.
37th (Royal Bucks Hussars) Company, 10th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry, parade in Buckingham in 1899 before leaving for South Africa.
Bucks Yeomen In Action at Boshof, South Africa
5 April, 1900: The 37th and 38th (Royal Bucks Hussars) Companies of the 10th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry (IY) are the first to go into action against the Boers at Boshof in South Africa.
The 10th and 15th Battalions IY were among four attached to Lord Methuen’s 1st Division at Kimberley. Methuen was more prepared than some regulars to see the auxiliaries in action and, acting on the left flank of the British advance towards Bloemfontein, ordered the battalion to attack a small Boer commando that had stood to fight at Boshof, 33 miles north-east of Kimberley.
This Boer action was unusual because the commando was largely composed of foreign volunteers with the Boers under the command of the former French colonel, Comte de Villebois-Mareuil, who had been tasked with blowing up the railway bridge over the Modder River to cut the supply line to Kimberley.
The 25 or so Boers holding one kopje (Africaans for small hill) retreated at once but the 100 or so foreigners – French, Belgian, Dutch German, Italian and Russian – under Villebois-Mareuil – remained on an adjacent kopje. After some four hours, with Villebois-Mareuil dead, his force surrendered. The commando had suffered 10 dead and 11 wounded with a further 51 captured. According to a member of Methuen’s staff, many of the prisoners ‘had the most immoral and disgusting photographs in their inside pockets’. The Imperial Yeomanry had three dead and eight wounded.
Some of the men advanced dismounted once they came under fire, requiring an advance of about 1,000 yards in the open. Others rode around the Boer flank and then dismounted. Quartermaster Sergeant W. J. Gough of Buckingham with 37th Company recorded:
“My first impression of being under fire was that you don’t realise they are shooting at you until you see someone roll over alongside you.” Buckingham Express, 5 May 1900.
That night, all were soaked by rain amid a thunderstorm. The 34 year old Sergeant Patrick Campbell of the 37th Company – estranged husband of the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell – was one of the three IY killed. The other two dead were Captain Cecil Boyle from the 40th Company, and Lieutenant Arthur Williams from 10th (Sherwood Rangers) Company of the 3rd Battalion, who was killed when some Boers raised a white flag, and others kept firing. The prisoners included an alleged Russian Prince, Bagratian of Tiflis, was actually believed to be a Polish Jew from Hornditch.
Campbell, shot through the head, and the others including Villebois-Mareuil were buried at Boshof, Methuen having a headstone erected to the Frenchman. Lord Chesham, who commanded the 10th battalion, brought the Frenchman’s horse back to England. In a rather quixotic gesture, its heart and ceremonial trappings were buried on the village green at Latimer in 1911 next to the war memorial to the men from the village who served in South Africa. Villebois-Mareuil’s body was moved from Boshof to Magersfontein in 1969. The graves of Campbell, Boyle and Williams remain at Boshof cemetery, as do the graves of those killed fighting for the Boers. A memorial stone on one of kopjes held by the Boers was unveiled in 1987.
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