France Norway 1940:
British Forces south of the River Somme
The evacuation from Dunkirk did not end the British Army’s involvement in the Battle for France. The 51 (Highland) Infantry Division had been under command of the French Army along the Saar Front. They only endured small attacks in the early days of the German invasion but on 20 May, it was ordered to withdraw.
Two days earlier, on the 18 May, as the German advance towards the coast continued, hurried arrangements were being made to organise some defences south of the River Somme. Various ad-hoc units were formed with men from depots and reinforcement camps in the area. These were consolidated into a formation called ‘Beauman Division’.
The British forces in France were now in two groups, with the 1 Armoured Division and 51 Infantry Division under French command, with the Beauman Division and other Lines of Communication troops under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Henry KARSLAKE. The total number of British troops in France after the evacuation from Dunkirk was about 140,000.
On the 5 June 1940, the German forces along the Somme front went over on to the offensive. The 51 Infantry Division and French 31 Division held a front of nearly forty miles near St. Velery sur Somme. They faced a fierce onslaught as the Germans launched a series of coordinated attacks along the line. It was between Abbeville and Amiens that they made the breakthrough. The 51 Division retired behind the River Bresle on the 6 June.
The 51 Division was strengthened by the addition of the ‘A’ Infantry Brigade of the Beauman Division, although all three battalions were under strength. As soon as they arrived, they deployed in the front line on the left of the division’s positions to allow the 152 Infantry Brigade to rest and refit.
The situation was deteriorating significantly as the 5 Panzer and 7 Panzer Divisions were now outflanking the Bresle River line. At dawn on the 8 June, German troops reached Rouen, effectively trapping the 51 Division and French IX Corps in a pocket based around Le Havre. They entered the city the next day with opposition leaving the front wide open. With the fall of Rouen, Le Havre became the only possible evacuation route for the 51 Division and IX French Corps. The 154 Infantry Brigade and ‘A’ Infantry Brigade were formed into ‘Arkforce’ to secure the line of communication back to the port.
As these two formations made their way back, German forces reached the coast near St. Valery-en-Caux. This meant the bulk of the 51 Division was now cut off from Le Havre. British destroyers operating off the coast were fired upon by German artillery situated on the cliff tops overlooking St. Valery. The 51 Division and some French troops formed a perimeter around St. Valery in the hope of evacuation. This time, the possible locations for evacuation were overlooked and under fire from German troops, making evacuation very hazardous.
The Germans made concerted attacks on the perimeter on the 11 June. This added to the problems as the beaches were now raked by machine gun fire from the area around Le Tot. The General Officer Commanding the 51 Infantry Division, Major General FORTUNE, made an assessment that the only opportunity to evacuate troops was overnight the 11 to 12 June.
The troops made their way back to the beaches, but no ships came. In the morning of the 12 June, German armoured forces continued their attack. At 08.30 hours, the French corps commander surrendered his forces. Major General FORTUNE accepted the inevitable and ordered a cease-fire half an hour later. However, 2,137 British soldiers and 1,184 French soldiers were successful evacuated from beaches to the east of St. Valery-en-Caux. The evacuation of Le Havre was completed on the 13 June.
The final phase of the Battle of France took place between the 12 and 18 June 1940. The intention was to concentrate British forces in and around Rennes to form a Second Expeditionary Force under Lieutenant General BROOKE. He was appointed to command a new corps in France on the 6 June, with the first brigade of the 52 (Lowland) Infantry Division due to arrive in France on the 7 June. By now, the British Army had elements of the 1 Armoured Division, the Beauman Division, 52 Infantry Division and 1 Canadian Infantry Division operating in France.
Just after midnight on the 17 June, Lieutenant General BROOKE was informed that the French Government was seeking an armistice with Germany. The evacuation of the remains of the B.E.F. now took priority in terms of British interests. Over thirty-thousand British troops were evacuated from Cherbourg and twenty-thousand from St. Malo. Lieutenant General BROOKE left Cherbourg on the 18 June.
There remained many other British troops in France, mainly from the bases and lines of communication forces. Evacuations took place from Brest where thirty-two thousand men were evacuated safely. A major evacuation from St. Nazaire and Nantes was put into effect. This led to the greatest loss of life from a single event when bombs hit the troopship Lancastria off St. Nazaire causing her to sink rapidly. The actual number of people who died in this incident is unknown, but is at least three-thousand. This included civilians as well as troops, and amounted to about one third of all the casualties sustained by the British Army during this campaign.
Officially, evacuations of British troops ceased on the 25 June under the terms of the French armistice. However, evacuations of British, French, Polish, Czech and a few Belgian troops continued until the 14 August. The numbers evacuated from south of the River Somme were:
British = 144,171;
French = 18,246;
Polish = 24,352;
Czech = 4,938;
Belgian = 163.