The Regiments in World War II
THE REGIMENTS IN WORLD WAR II
by John Downham
Shortly after the outbreak of war with Germany the 1st South Lancashires and 1st Loyals crossed to France with, respectively, the 4th and 1st Divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). By early October 1939 both battalions were in position on the Belgian frontier, where they were joined in April 1940 by the 1st and 4th East Lancashires, both of 42nd Division.
On 10th May 1940 the ‘Phoney War’ came to an abrupt end when Germany invaded Belgium and Holland. The BEF advanced into Belgium but the Allied front rapidly collapsed before the German ‘blitzkrieg’ and the British force, with its flanks exposed and its rear increasingly threatened, was obliged to make a succession of withdrawals. Ordered back from one defensive line to the next, amid scenes of growing chaos, the four Lancashire battalions fought a number of delaying actions, most notably at Tournai on the Escaut, at Lannoy and at Rousbrugge, before reaching Dunkirk.
All three of the 1st Battalions then took up defensive positions to cover the evacuation of the BEF. The South Lancashires held the far left of the British line, west of Nieuport, the Loyals occupied the fortified town of Bergues on the right, while the East Lancashires plugged a gap in the centre of the line along the Bergues Canal. All three units held their positions, under constant attack, until ordered to withdraw. On 1st June a determined enemy attack on the Dunkirk perimeter was halted by the gallant stand of B Company, 1st East Lancashires, for which Captain Marcus Ervine-Andrews was awarded the Victoria Cross (the only one at Dunkirk), assisted by a counter-attack by the Loyals. The three Lancashire battalions were among the last British troops to embark on the night 2nd/3rd June.
After Dunkirk, Britain was in imminent danger of invasion and all available battalions, Regular, TA and newly-raised Service units, were at first tasked with coastal defence. After the Battle of Britain in September 1940 the threat of invasion receded and the battalions were able to start training for offensive operations.
A number of Lancashire battalions were converted to units of other Arms:
7th East Lancashires – 103rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment
8th East Lancashires – 144th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps
2/4th South Lancashires – 13th Battalion Parachute Regiment
5th South Lancashires – 61st Searchlight Regiment
4th Loyals – 62nd Searchlight Regiment
5th Loyals – 18th Battalion Reconnaissance Regiment
6th Loyals – 2nd Battalion Reconnaissance Regiment
7th Loyals – 92nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment
8th Loyals – 93rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment
9th Loyals – 148th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps
RAIDS AND RESISTANCE
In the dark days when Europe was overrun by the Axis powers and Britain was still building her strength, many gallant officers and men of our predecessor Regiments, impatient for action, volunteered for service with the Army Commandos and took the war to the enemy from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, while others operated with resistance fighters from France to Poland.
The 2nd Loyals were in garrison at Singapore when on 8th December 1941, without warning or declaration of war, Japan launched attacks on British and American bases throughout the Pacific theatre. Within a month northern Malaya was overrun by Japanese forces, who were also masters at sea and in the air. On 12th January 1942 the Loyals were hurried forward from fortress reserve at Singapore to aid the hard-pressed Indian and Australian troops who were falling back through Johore, and over the next fortnight they fought several desperate rearguard actions, notably north of Batu Pahat, to assist in the Allied withdrawal from the mainland. Many Loyals were cut of in the fighting but managed to evade the enemy and rejoin the Battalion. Back on Singapore Island, 2nd Loyals held the reserved demolition on the causeway until it was blown on 31st January.
Reinforcements were still arriving at Singapore, the very last unit being the 18th Reconnaissance Battalion (late 5th Loyals, Bolton’s TA battalion) aboard the Empress of Asia. Ten miles out from Singapore, the ship was attacked on 4th February by Japanese dive-bombers and set ablaze. 18th Recce were ordered to abandon ship, losing all their arms and equipment.
On 8th February the Japanese landed on Singapore Island. Some counter-attacks were attempted, including one made at Bukit Timah on 11th February by the re-equipped 18th Recce, but in general the invaders were allowed to retain the initiative as the garrison fell back towards the suburbs of Singapore city. 2nd Loyals defended positions on Reformatory Road before starting, on the 12th, a series of withdrawals which took them to Gillman Barracks, their former peacetime base. A further two days of heavy pressure resulted, on 15th February, in a final withdrawal to Mount Washington where the surviving Loyals were ordered to lay down their arms. They had fought to the last with courage, tenacity and devotion.
Over the next three and a half years the survivors of both battalions suffered severe privations and many deaths at the hands of their brutal captors. 2nd Loyals were sent to Keijo, in Korea, while the men of 18th Recce were taken to Thailand to construct the notorious Burma Railway.
The two photographs shown below may be the only ones ever taken showing the 2nd Loyals while in captivity in Changi. They are part of a set of eight historically-priceless photographs taken in Changi Gaol, Singapore, by Army Chaplain the Rev. Lewis Headley, using a Leica camera and film which he buried for safety at the time of the surrender, and retrieved eight months later. He processed the film in an X-Ray developer, and then hid the negatives throughout the rest of his time in captivity. They survived his forced transfer to the Siamese jungle, and escaped detection by numerous searches. They were hidden in socks, in hollow bamboo and finally in the centre of a ball of mending wool. Discovery would have entailed the most severe punishment by his captors. Reproduced from photographs held in the Royal Army Chaplains Department Museum Collection and used with the permission of the RAChD Museum Trustees.
Changi Gaol was built before the war to house 600 prisoners. The Japanese crammed 5,000, and eventually 12,000, men,women and children into it. The Loyals were imprisoned there for several months before their transfer to Korea.
In June 1940 the 2nd Battalions East Lancashires and South Lancashires left India in convoy for England, where they joined 29th Infantry Brigade and, in April 1940, began training for amphibious operations. The following March they embarked on a secret expedition to capture the Vichy French island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Both battalions took part in the assault landing on 5th May 1942 and pressed on rapidly towards the French naval base at Diego Garcia. That night the South Lancashires infiltrated behind the enemy lines. Heavy and confused fighting followed and, although the South Lancashires’ success was not immediately exploited, their daring operation persuaded the French that they were beaten and the port was captured the next day. In August both battalions re-embarked for Mombasa to prepare for the next phase. Over the next two months they cooperated in the capture by assault of the ports of Majunga and Tamatave and the rapid clearance of the remainder of the island.
NORTH AFRICA 1943
Djebel Kesskiss. On 9th March 1943 the 1st Loyals, again part of 1st Division, landed at Algiers to take part in the Tunisian campaign. By the end of the month the Loyals were in contact with the Afrika Korps in the area of Banana Ridge and the Medjez Plain. On 22nd April the Battalion’s stout defence and counter-attack were largely responsible for breaking an attack by German tanks and infantry at Djebel Kesskiss.
Gueriat el Atach Ridge. The following day the Loyals suffered heavy casualties in a hard-fought battle for the heavily fortified Gueriat el Atach feature. The Commanding Officer was killed and Lieutenant Sandys-Clarke earned a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Gab Gab Gap. On 28th-29th April the Battalion was closely engaged in a desperate but finally successful defensive battle against enemy armour in the Gab Gab Gap. In one week of hard fighting 1st Loyals had lost 22 officers and 446 men, of whom eleven officers and 45 men were killed. On 5th May the Battalion supported an attack on the key Djebel Bou Aoukaz feature, and the following day the German front crumbled. The Loyals moved forward to take part in mopping up operations in the Tunis area where, on 20th May, they were represented at the Victory Parade.
Pantelleria. The battle for North Africa was over, but 1st Loyals were soon training for combined operations in preparation for Allied landings on Sicily and the Italian mainland. As a preliminary to these operations, the 1st Division was tasked with the capture of the heavily fortified island of Pantelleria. 1st Loyals landed in the first wave of the assault but met with no opposition from the Italian garrison of 10,000 men, who surrendered without firing a shot.
Following the Allied invasion of southern Italy, 1st Loyals landed in December 1943 at Taranto. As frontal attacks on the Gustav Line were proving costly, it was decided to turn the German’s flank by landing at Anzio, 60 miles behind the front and 30 miles south of Rome. The British 1st Division and an American division were selected for this enterprise, landing on 22nd January with no opposition. Unfortunately the Allied command failed to exploit their initial advantage of surprise. Within days the Germans had deployed substantial reinforcements and by the end of January the Allies were on the defensive.
Repeated German counter-attacks culminated on 16th February in a massive thrust by three divisions down the Rome-Anzio road with the object of splitting the beach-head and driving its defenders into the sea. In the direct path of this assault, 1st Loyals occupied the final line of defence around the vital Fly-over Bridge and along Wigan Street. On the 18th and 19th February the enemy launched repeated and heavy assaults on this position, but despite mounting casualties the Loyals fought back valiantly and held their ground until, on the afternoon of the 19th, they were able to mount a successful counter-attack. This was the turning-point of the battle and, although there was much hard fighting over the next few weeks, by the end of May 1st Loyals were advancing on Rome, which was captured on 4th June.
Fiesole. The Allies followed the retreating enemy and on 15th August the 1st Loyals occupied Florence. Having cleared the city, the Battalion had a fierce action on 24th August with the German rearguard on the steep slopes leading up to Fiesole. ‘Fiesole’ is a unique Regimental battle honour.
The Gothic Line. Early in September the enemy withdrew to their main Gothic Line positions astride the Apennines. Later that month and during October this line was penetrated, the Loyals fighting smart actions at Poggio dei Ronchi and Monte Carnevale, being involved in the capture of Monte Gamberaldi, and successfully defending the summit of Monte Ceco against a German counter-attack.
Monte Grande. In November the 1st Loyals were moved to the massive Monte Grande feature where for the next two months, under difficult winter conditions, they resisted a series of determined enemy attacks. In April 1945 the resuscitated 2nd Loyals (formerly the 10th), who had arrived in theatre in December 1944, also defended Monte Grande before the final collapse of the German forces in Italy.
NORTH WEST EUROPE 1944-1945
Normandy Landing. On D Day, 6th June 1944, the 1st South Lancashires were one of the two leading assault battalions of the 3rd Division. The Battalion landed on Queen White Beach at 7.20 a.m. and, despite losing the Commanding Officer and well over one hundred other casualties, made good progress through the well-prepared German beach defences and pressed inland to capture Hermanville by 9 a.m. Over the next days the South Lancashires captured the villages of Plumetot, Cresserons and La Deliverande, and the enemy strongpoint known as ‘Trout’, and secured the famous Pegasus Bridge across the Orne.
Caen. The 1st South Lancashires were then heavily engaged in the initial British thrust towards Caen, with particularly heavy fighting and many casualties on 22nd-23rd and 26th June against strong enemy positions around Le Londel. By the end of June the 1st and 5th East Lancashires were also in Normandy, with the 53rd and 59th Divisions respectively. On 8th July the 5th East Lancashires took part in a renewed advance on Caen, during which their B Company fought an action at St Contest.
The Bocage. Both East Lancashire battalions then deployed into the close bocage country west of Caen. While the 1st Battalion held a succession of defensive positions in an exposed salient, at Cheux, Grainville and Bougy, the 5th Battalion were involved in offensive action 2-3 miles further west. On 16th July (‘Black Sunday’) the 5th East Lancashires suffered some two hundred casualties in an attack at Fontenay-le-Pesnil. On 29th July the same Battalion made another costly attack, though this time with more success, and by 8th August they had advanced to the River Orne bridgehead at Grimbosq, where the 1st Battalion also crossed. On 13th August, due to an acute shortage of infantry battle casualty replacements, the 59th Division, including 5th East Lancashires, was disbanded.
Operation Goodwood. The 1st South Lancashires were next engaged on the left flank of Operation Goodwood, the major British offensive on the Bourguebus Ridge designed to draw in the German reserves prior to the Allied break-out from the Normandy beach-head. The Battalion was in action 17th-27th July around the villages of Touffreville and Sannerville and the infamous ‘Black Orchard’, where they lost their third Commanding Officer since D Day, earning the battle honour Troarn.
Falaise. The break-out was now under way and a large part of the German army in Normandy was trapped in a pocket west of Falaise On 11th August the 1st South Lancashires led an advance into this pocket down the Vire-Tinchebray road, on the extreme left of the British front. Meanwhile the 1st East Lancashires, advancing south from the Orne against the neck of the pocket, captured the little town of Bois Halbout in a spirited quick attack on 12th August, then exploited to just west of Falaise. On 19th August, when the encirclement of German forces in the Falaise pocket was completed, the battle for Normandy was effectively over.
BELGIUM AND HOLLAND 1944-45
Antwerp. The 1st East Lancashires joined in the pursuit across France, fighting several actions against enemy rearguards north of St Pol, 4th-6th September, before taking part in the clearance of the vital Antwerp docks, 9th-13th September.
Operation Market Garden. The British 2nd Army was now closing up to the Dutch border where the Meuse-Escaut Canal was the first of a succession of water obstacles. On 17th September the Allies attempted to force these obstacles by landing airborne forces on the Maas, Waal and Rhine bridges in conjunction with an armoured thrust on a narrow front. Both Lancashire battalions took part in this Nederrijn battle on the flanks of the main axis. On the night of the 16th/17th the East Lancashires carried out a difficult opposed assault crossing of the Meuse-Escaut Canal at Lommel, mopping up its parachutist defenders the following day before moving forward against determined resistance to capture the little town of Bladel, near Eindhoven, on the 22nd. On the right flank of the advance, The South Lancashires were in action around Weert.
Overloon.The partial success of Market Garden put the Allies in possession of a wedge of Holland with its point at Nijmegan, and the immediate object, which again involved both Lancashire battalions, was now to clear remaining enemy from west of the Maas. On the southern flank of the wedge, the South Lancashires took part in some of the bitterest fighting of the campaign around Overloon and Venraij 12th-18th October.
s’Hertogenbosch. Meanwhile, the East Lancashires were initially tasked to hold a section of the corridor to Nijmegan, defending an area near St Oedenrode. The 53rd Division was then ordered north to capture the important route centre of s’Hertogenbosch on the Lower Maas. The East Lancashires played a particularly distinguished part in this battle, leading a daring night infiltration attack on the 23rd/24th and then participating in four days of heavy street fighting before the town was cleared. Both battalions subsequently held defensive positions west of the Maas.
The Ardennes. On 19th December the German launched a counter-offensive and broke through the American front in the Ardennes. 53rd Division was withdrawn to cover Brussels and then, as the battle stabilised, committed to the Allied counter-attack on the Ourthe. On 7th January 1945, after five days of hard fighting in the woods in severe arctic conditions, and without armoured support, the East Lancashires assaulted and captured the village of Grimbiemont. The position was strongly-held by German tanks and infantry, and casualties were heavy, eleven officers and 232 men.
The Rhineland. The Allies now crossed the Maas into Germany and began to clear the enemy from between that river and the Rhine. The East Lancashires had considerable success in ten days very heavy fighting, 8th-17th February, in the Reichswald Forest, being singled out for congratulation by Montgomery. There was much close combat, including at least one bayonet charge, and many prisoners were taken. The South Lancashires had a grim struggle in the Hochwald, near Goch, on the 27th, when they fought their way slowly forward against stubborn opposition and took many casualties. The following day the East Lancashires moved through to take up the advance, clearing an area east of Weeze against fanatical opposition, particularly at Bussenhof and Trupphof, to reach Geldern, where they were the first British infantry to link up with a converging American attack.
From the Rhine to the Elbe. At the end of March both Lancashire battalions crossed the Rhine and began the final advance across the North German Plain. 1st East Lancashires first took an active part in the battle for Bocholt, 28-29 March, then, like the South Lancashires, moved through the eastern border areas of Holland, mopping up enemy stragglers. German defences were based on water obstacles, and the East Lancashires then took part in fighting on the Ems-Weser Canal near Ibbenburen, 6th-7th April, and at the assault crossing of the River Aller on the 12th, with another heavy engagement at Kirchlinteln on the 16th, before occupying Hamburg on 4th May. Meanwhile, on 5th April the South Lancashires were engaged at Lingen, on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, and mounted a successful attack at Delmenhorst during the operation to capture Bremen, which fell on 26th April. On May 8th 1945, ‘VE Day’, German capitulation ended the war in Europe.
The fall of Singapore in February 1942 was followed by Japanese invasion of Burma, and the small British and Indian force in that country was obliged to make an exhausting and hard fought withdrawal through the jungle and mountains to the Indian frontier, where in May they turned to face the enemy and, under General Bill Slim, prepared for their return to Burma. The 2nd Battalions of the East and South Lancashires, who had spent over a year in India after the Madagascar campaign, joined the 36th Indian Division of Slim’s 14thArmy. Two further Lancashire battalions were also present at this time; the 2nd Battalion Reconnaissance Regiment (formerly 6th Loyals) was in the 2nd Infantry Division, while the 7th South Lancashires were stationed in India from October 1943 to the end of the war, employed as a training battalion.
The Arakan In February 1944 Slim launched an attack in the Arakan, an advance which coincided with a Japanese offensive in the same area. The two Lancashire battalions deployed initially to the Bawli area ofNorth Arakan, where they saw no action. A few days later, however, the Japanese gave up their offensive and both battalions moved up to the Mayu Ridge, where they had their first contact with the enemy. During early March the South Lancashires dealt successfully with an enemy penetration of the area; they then handed over theNgakyedaukPass to theEast Lancashires and moved further along the ridge. Ten days later the South Lancashires attacked the heavily defended Point 1301, near the Maya Tunnels, but after a great deal of hard fighting the attempt was called off when the companies were held up within yards of their objectives, which were later taken only after considerable air and artillery bombardment.
Kohima To the north of the Arakan the Japanese offensive had had some success and British garrisons of Kohima and Imphal were surrounded. Both 2nd Battalions were moved north to help counter this: the South Lancashires, now in the 7th Indian Division, to Kohima in May and the East to Shillong in June. Kohima was relieved after two weeks. On 1st June theSouth Lancashires joined in the work of clearing the enemy from the area and then advanced toward Imphal against minor but often determined opposition. The battalion’s attack on Kidema was however over very difficult ground and against a large and well-sited enemy who were only dislodged after six days of artillery fire and patrol action. The road to Imphal was opened on the 22nd June. The tide had been turned and in Burma the first main objective was to be Mandalay.
Pinwe Early in August the East Lancashires left Shillong and were flown into Myitkyina where the 36th Indian Division joined the, mainly Chinese, Northern Area Combat Command under the American General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell. The battalion then started to advance onMandalay first encountering a stubborn but confused defence in the approach to Ingyingon. During October they advanced 75 miles through thick Jungle in twelve days taking numerous Japanese positions. In November the battalion had four days hard fighting for thevillage of Okshitkon, near Pinwe, and then defended it for a further nine days whilst sending out long range patrols through the Japanese forward positions. By mid-December the battalion was in the Indaw area. In December the East Lancashires crossed theIrrawaddy and advanced to Twinnge, and then in late February after some sharp encounters near the Kin Chuang, the battalion headed for Mongmit. By then however the Japanese had moved south to help with their main defence near Meiktila.
Nyaungu Bridgehead While Stilwell was bearing down from the north, Slim was pushing east from Imphal. Having advanced to and crossed the River Chindwin his next obstacle was the Irrawaddy. The plan was for the main crossing to be near Mandalay with a second surprise one much further south near Meiktila, which was intended to cut the Japanese withdrawal route. The South Lancashires, who were to lead the crossing at the southern most point in this the longest opposed river crossing of the war, left Kohima in December and arrived at their crossing point near Nyangu early in February 1945. The assault started silently in the early hours of the 14th but the strength of the 2,000-yard wide river and the poor quality and damaged craft prevented the battalion putting more than one company across successfully under cover of darkness. At dawn on St Valentine’s Day the second wave was caught in mid-stream and suffered heavy casualties from accurate enemy fire. A foothold had been established however and during the morning an Indian battalion completed the task with considerable artillery support.
Letse Having occupied Nyaungu, the 2nd South Lancashires helped to clear the enemy from theMountPopa area. Then, as the battle for Meiktila came to an end they were moved back over theIrrawaddy and took part in the defence of the Letse Box against an advance from the south. On the 1st April the battalion attacked the heavily defended Point 534 feature which dominated the ‘box’ and which only fell after twenty-four hours very difficult fighting. ‘Letse’ is an unique Battle Honour.
The race for Rangoon was now on. In this the 2nd East Lancashires, by now back under British command, moved to Meiktila, then cleared the enemy from the road to Kalaw. In mid-May the battalion was flown back to India. The South Lancashires first helped to cut off the Japanese retreating from the Arakan then joined in the advance on Rangoon, during which they met a strong rear guard defence. Rangoon was entered on the 7th May and as a result large numbers of Japanese attempted to retreat eastwards through the mountains of Pegu Yoma. The 2nd South Lancashires spent a month during the monsoon harassing the enemy in the mountains, before sailing for India at the end of July.
The next step was to be the invasion of Malaya, but on the 6th August an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and nine days later the Japanese surrendered.
The deadliest and most wide-spread war in human history was over. At least 50 million, and perhaps as many as 70 million, people were dead; over 100 million had served in military units; and the vast majority of the world’s nations, including all the major powers, had been involved.