(Extract from the book ‘On a Bright Day in May’ by Doug Swift. Used by permission of the author.)
Next, Sergeant Barnard came round and gave us a rifle inspection. Then he gave the order to fix bayonets - the last order he ever gave. Our bayonets were the old 1914-18 War, long ones. I believe Sergeant Barnard said, “Good luck!” as he went back to his position, while we laid too in our sections on the field. Things looked ominous.
I never did fill in the Will form in the back of my Pay Book. Seemed too final somehow, not that I had much of anything to leave. The weather was quiet, warm, sunny and dry.
Shortly afterwards, without any warning, a hail of machine gun bullets came sweeping down amongst us, from German tanks on the top road. We commenced firing back, the light French tank opened up and immediately became a target for heavy mortars. They came whistling over, exploding fore and aft of the tank behind us with terrifying ferocity; finally knocking it out. They were also hitting the chateau with heavy mortars, causing considerable damage and the farm buildings on our right front were on fire.
The hail of machine gun bullets around us was incessant. It’s an uncanny feeling, those carriers of death zipping and whining by, bent on destroying you if they can. I noticed that the speeds and the sounds of the bullets varied, some went by with a terrific zip, others whined by. Some were high-pitched and urgent, intent on their deadly mission, while others droned by and one or two seemed almost spent. The speeds dictating the deadly, discordant sounds of death.
It seems an unreal situation and makes you wonder how the hell you got into such a predicament! Yet, all the time the action was on, I had a feeling that I wouldn’t get killed. I’m not prone to those sort of feelings - but there it was.
One of the chaps in H.Q. Company, on the lower road below us, told me after the war, that machine gun bullets were ripping through the trees that lined the road, bringing down showers of leaves. A lorry load of the lads - ‘D’ Company I think - with Sergeant Pritchard in charge, were crossing the front diagonally, along an old cart track and were hit by a heavy mortar. The whole lot went up, killing them all. Sergeant Pritchard trained me in Brighton, there was a sergeant in every sense of the word, the backbone of the British army!
We were a fine Battalion with very able Officers, but had nothing to fight tanks or heavy weapons with. We had rifles, a few bren guns, two inch mortars with smoke bombs and the Boyes anti-tank rifle. One chap said afterwards, that he was using a Boyes and the bolt broke. An officer said later, that he had a German tank in his sights with one, then fired with no effect whatsoever!
While the battle was on, a lone fighter plane of the RAF swooped along, machine-gunning the German positions and that was the last we saw of our air force or any other on our side.
The uneven battle went on all afternoon and into the early evening, rising and falling at times in intensity. At one point, I caught sight of one of our Companies advancing on my far right, possibly to try and relieve the pressure on our ‘A’ Company. They advanced with bayonets fixed, bloody heroes the lot of them, against tanks; bayonets! I don’t know what happened to them, must have been mown down.
Apparently, German tanks advanced and overcame ‘HQ’ and ‘B’ Companies about five o’clock. When they overran Battalion Headquarters, they called upon Major Cassels to surrender. He remained seated and did not raise his hands. He was promptly shot dead. Major Miller had caught a burst of machine gun fire right across his body and was in a very bad way.
Yet the tanks did not overrun our position until early evening, rolling down the fields, guns and machine guns at the ready. There was nothing else my mate and I could do but sling our paybooks away, get up, put up our hands and walk slowly up the field.