Coming Soon

Barrie Barnes

The 50th At Bay

Hellion Press - available early 2018.

 

The second part, being the prequal to 'The Sign Of The Double T'. It follows the 50th Division through the early years of defeat from September 1939 to November 1942. This book contains the last of all the interviews I made in the 80's and 90's of the men who were at the sharp end in France and Belgium in 1940 to the blistering heat of the Western Desert where they met their nemisis; Erwin Rommel and his desert army.

 

Author's preview

 

This is an oral history of the 50th Northumbrian Division, based on hundreds of interviews conducted by me since the early 1980s. None of these accounts have been published before and the text is illustrated with dozens of contemporary photographs and maps from the archives of the Imperial War Museum and many that were in the possession of the veterans themselves

 

The division is mainly made up of men from the North East of England and the regiments they served in as young men, they were;

 

The Green Howards or Yorkshire Regiment

The East Yorkshire Regiment

The Durham Light Infantry.

The Northumberland Fusiliers

 

and all of the Artillery, Engineers, Tank Regiments, Transport Corps, supply units and all of the other essential elements required to keep the division in working order. This was a Territorial Division and with the outbreak of war these Saturday night soldiers found themselves thrust to the forefront of a new mechanised war that had never been seen before.

 

Once in France they began preparing defensive positions and lived rough through one of the worst winters in modern memory. In May the Phoney War came to an end and the Blitzkreig began. Hitler's Legions smashed through the French and British units and made a dash for the coast, once the British realised they were about to be encircled they began pulling back until the whole Allied Army was fleeing in the direction of Dunkirk.

 

At this point, after days of continuous combat and no sleep the 50th Division was ordered to make a stand and attack the German Forces at the French town of Arras, giving the rest of the BEF the space they needed to escape. On 21st May 1940 the 50th Division and two tank regiments moved from Vimy Ridge, with its towering Canadian War Memorial from the Great War, around Arras and launched a fierce counter attack into the flanks of the advancing German Panzers and infantry support. The German commanders went into shock at this totally unexpected onslaught, the SS Totenkopft Division was hit so hard and the slaughter was so great that they broke and left the field. It was at this point the 50th met for the first time the man who would prove to be their Nemisis for the next two years - Rommel and his Ghost Division.

 

Even Rommel's troops were taken by surprise as British tanks smashed through their positions, men were cut down in droves by the fire-power of the British tanks or crushed to death under the tracks of these 30 ton mechanical monsters. Rommel saw the situation was dangerous and rushed to the front with his aides and began rallying his men and directing the fire of his artillery on the spot. He ordered his 88mm anti-aircraft guns forward and used them in an anti-tank roll for the first time, no tank could stand up to such large callibre guns and one by one the British tanks burst into flames or were blown, with their crews, to smithereens. Slowly the situation stabilised, Rommel had saved the day by his personal intervention, his position at the front was so dangerous that his aide was killed at his side, but Rommel's luck held.

 

The 50th fought on all night against massive odds, the next day the dash for the coast began in ernest, many of the men could not believe the terrible sights they saw on the retreat. German aircraft roared out of the skies and bombed the civilian columns as they fled in their thousands looking for a safe haven in a world gone mad. Dunkirk was finally reached and the 50th got home, many of the men interviewed were thoroughly ashamed of this enormous national defeat and could not believe how well they were treated. All winter in 1940 the weary troops waited on the South Coast for an invasion that did not come. At the start of 1941 the 50th were refitted and new blood brought into their ranks, the 50th moved from being a division of part-time soldiers to a professional unit led by regular soldiers.

 

THE WESTERN DESERT.

1941 was a bleak time for the troops of the 50th, they were shunted around the Middle East in terrible weather until in early 1942 when they joined the 8th Army in the Gazala Line, the 8th were in the process of retreating as Rommel chased them back to their own lines.

 

The Gazala Line was held by the South Africans, the Free French and the 50th Division, the 8th Army fell back through them and Rommel stopped his forces before Gazala and planned his next move.

 

Rommel's forces outflanked the British at Gazala and a battle of the greatest ferocity raged for days in late May 1942 as the opposing armoured formations smashed each other to pieces in the blazing heat. The Africa Corps turned its attention to the 150th Brigade, a part of the 50th Division, which was blocking Rommel's re-supply route. For five days the isolated and unsupported troops of the 150th held off the might of Rommel's Panzer Army until they could fight no more, on 1st June the German tanks rolled over the doomed position in one last frenzy of violence until the 150th was no more. Rommel commented in his diary that night; "The defence was conducted with consumate skill and as usual the British fought to the last round".

 

In this book I have interviewed the survivors of that desparate fight, Rommel moved among them in the aftermath and the men of the 150th speak with pride of the experience of meeting "The Desert Fox". The 8th Army was forced to retreat from the Gazala line pursued as they did so by the German and Italian Divisions, a stand was made by the 50th Division at Mersa Matruh when a young boy called Adam Wakenshaw won the Victoria Cross for bravery but gave his life in the process. The whole British Army now fell back to the Alamein Line and stood at bay, Rommel's forces were stopped here and both sides sat behind defensive positions and licked their wounds while preparing for the next round.

 

The 50th Division alone had suffered over 50,000 casualties between the 26th May and 1st October 1942.

 

© 2015 Barrie Barnes